Josef SUK
A Summer’s Tale Op.29 JSKat 57 (1907-1909) [54:25]
Prague Op.26 JSKat 54 (1904) [24:52]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek
rec. Watford Colosseum, England, 3-4 January 2012
CHANDOS CHSA 5109 SACD [79:32]
What a magnificent score Suk’s A Summer’s Tale is! By turns rapturous, ecstatic, grief-ridden and serene it is an undoubted masterpiece. This performance from a clearly inspired BBC Symphony Orchestra under their departing principal conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek rises to the challenge of capturing the shifting and elusive sound-world as well as any. I listened to this performance in its standard CD format but if every there was a recording to tempt me to splash out on a Super Audio compatible system this might be it. The Chandos engineers and production team have produced one of their very finest discs and it sounds simply ravishing. The Watford Colosseum has a naturally generous and resonant acoustic that record companies have used over the years to create impressive recordings but I am not sure I have ever heard a better one from that venue where weight and richness of orchestral sound is balanced with superb detail and a wholly believable perspective. Indeed I would go as far to say this is the finest recorded performance I have heard from Bĕlohlávek too. The reason I used the word elusive is simple; composed between 1907-09, A Summer’s Tale sits on that fascinating musical cusp between the end of Romanticism and the dawn of the modern age with the mainstreams of classical music dividing into Impressionism, the second Viennese/serial school and various variants of Modernism, Post-Romanticism and the rest. Not that Suk was interested in creating a new sound for a new sound’s sake. Instead he took what he wanted and needed from the various compositional ‘schools’ and created a uniquely personal sound-world. The fact that in it one hears echoes of other styles and influences means it requires a clear and strong musical personality to bind the possibly disparate elements together.
Suk’s personal and professional career is easily and neatly divisible into two all but equal parts. The first thirty years of his life show him learning his craft both as a leading violinist and composer and finding great personal happiness professionally and personally through his association with Antonín Dvořák and his marriage to the older composer’s daughter. The well documented double tragedy of their deaths in 1904 changed his life forever. The remaining thirty-one years of Suk’s life were a reaction to that loss as he threw himself into composition, performance and teaching. As a composer Suk’s oeuvre is relatively small; give or take a dozen CDs would give you a near complete collection evenly split between orchestral, chamber and piano music. Yet what it lacks in quantity is more than accounted for in quality. The group of orchestral works is a case in point. Dominating it are the tetralogy of works that Suk himself saw as being linked and a direct response to the loss of his beloved teacher and wife. The first and most famous is the Asrael Symphony written in the aftermath of the double loss. It remains as powerful a musical documentation of pain, loss and grief as any piece of music. All the more remarkable is the final positive affirmation through which one feels Suk found the strength to go on. The fact that the final panel of this deeply autobiographical cycle was not completed until the year before his death proves how important and lasting this musical subject was to him. A Summer’s Tale is the second, and is sub-titled Symphonic Poem. Look a little closer, and for the moment ignoring the five movement titles, and I do not think it is too hard to perceive another four part symphony here. As such it is beautifully proportioned: two outer movements playing for around the quarter hour mark with a two-part ‘slow movement’ second, and a scherzo third with each of those playing for eleven to twelve minutes. All of which makes for a very substantial work playing for nearly fifty-five minutes - a much larger work than the implicit ‘lightness’ of its title. With all the demands made on his time Suk often had to use his summer holidays as an opportunity to compose. So A Summer’s Tale was written in just six weeks during the summer of 1907 and was tinkered with for a further two years until its first performance in 1909. Graham Melville-Mason’s concise but excellent liner-note neatly summarises the work. In a speech in 1932 Suk said; “[it is about] finding a soothing balm in nature [after the cruel events that inspired the Asrael Symphony] …. After wild fleeing I find consolation in nature … the exalted jubilation of the first movement, the hymn to the sun in the second, compassion for those who can never see this [the third movement is entitled Blind Musicians], storm and wild longing in the fourth … give way in the final movement to the mystical calm of night”. I quote that at length simply because it encapsulates the essential moods of the various parts of the work far better than I ever could!
Suk writes for a large late romantic orchestra - with triple wind and extended brass together with two harps and piano. Certainly this makes for an exciting and powerful sound when all the forces are unleashed together but it is the refinement and skill of the orchestration that lingers in the memory. Bĕlohlávek’s is supremely skillful at bringing out the subtle nuance of the music and his BBC players respond with playing that is rich and full or flexible and subtle as required. Again they are helped greatly by the range of the Chandos recording which allows interesting touches in the scoring to register subtly yet clearly. This is a work that reveals more delicious detail with every re-listening. If you respond to the heated emotional sound-world of Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau or Schoenberg's  Pelleas und Melisandethis will appeal to you but much as I enjoy the Zemlinsky in particular I would have to say I find the Suk to be the more deeply personal and ultimately impressive work. The opening movement Voices of Love and Consolation is the most overtly romantic and exuberant and the BBCSO rise to the considerable technical challenges of the piece with virtuosic panache. Suk might have been a violinist himself but he certainly did not choose to write easily for his own instrument. The brass throughout the entire disc are a model of powerful burnished beauty and the woodwind are simply glorious. An especial highlight is the unusual third movement scored for two cor anglais, two harps, solo violin and viola and strings. As previously mentioned this is titled Blind Musicians and originated as part of the incidental music Suk had written for a play earlier in 1907. The two cor players are named as Alison Teale and Helen Vigurs and rightly so. In the midst of playing of such quality their contribution stands out as exceptionally fine. There is a sinuous almost sensual ebb and flow to their interplay aided by richly bardic harps and similarly beautiful string solos that makes for an exceptional passage of music making which again belies the diminutive implication of its Intermezzo title. The scherzo is an oddly modernist ‘night-music’ titled In the power of phantoms - fascinating to realise that Mahler’s 7th Symphony - although written between 1904-6 had to wait for its premiere, in Prague, in 1908. One wonders if Suk attended that premiere and any of that work’s sound-world leaked into the final emendations of his own score. Suk manages to find both consolation and reconciliation in the final section which is simply called Night andmakes for an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the work in its own right. His revisiting of the loss and hurt through Ripening in 1912-17 and Epilogue in 1920-33 suggests there were emotional scars that ran deeper than any single work could heal. If this is a work you have yet to encounter and large-scale scores of the period appeal than this should be placed high on any wish-list.
The coupling on this extremely generously filled disc is the earlier Symphonic Poem Prague. Considerately Chandos have split the work into four tracks but in fact this is a ‘traditional’ symphonic poem cast in an extended single movement form. It ‘feels’ like a more traditional work too - a simplistic comparison might be to say it could be another movement from Smetana’s Ma Vlast although written in a slightly more modernist idiom. Suk’s use of ancient Hussite chorales and the festive orchestration featuring organ and bells makes this a more public and occasional piece. Important to note however, that it was the work Suk had been planning at the time of the double deaths and the one into which he threw himself as a means of diverting his attention from the otherwise all-consuming grief he felt. From a musicological perspective it is fascinating to hear the change these losses brought about in the compositional style and vocabulary both melodic and harmonic that Suk used either side of 1904. That it is a ‘lesser’ work than A Summer’s Tale is clear but in its own right it is hugely enjoyable and receives another splendid performance full of swagger and panache with the final peroration of the organ proving once again the demonstration-disc qualities of the recording.
This is Bĕlohlávek’s second Suk disc with the BBC SO for Chandos. He has previously recorded with the Czech Philharmonic on the same label other well-received performances of Suk including Asrael, A Fairy Tale and the delightfully sunny string Serenade. Much as I have enjoyed all of those performances this new disc strikes me as the best by some distance. Now here comes a quirk - given the total praise I have for this disc readers might assume a simple shoe-in as far as ‘best version’ is concerned. Not so - after decades when the brilliant but murky Talich recordings were one’s only option, in recent years Suk has been rather lucky on disc with a series of devoted and fine conductors producing a series of excellent recordings. Indeed, A Summer’s Tale seems to have inspired the best out of those performers in turn. I have been listening to four other versions: two from Libor Pešek - one in early slightly glassy Supraphon DDD with the Czech Philharmonic and the other from Virgin (VC 7243 5 45057) with the RLPO, one on Naxos from Andrew Mogrelia and lastly Charles Mackerras on Decca (466 443-2) again with the Czech PO. If you own any of those performances - only Pešek on Supraphon is identically coupled - you will have a good performance. Possibly the Mogrelia is the least amongst equals but his Slovak Radio SO have a suitably idiomatic sound if not the finesse or recording quality of the new disc. Fairly routine searching of the web throws up copies to be had at bargain prices and I have a particular affection for Pešek in Liverpool proving yet again what a fine orchestra they were in the years BP (before Petrenko). That is before one even mentions the extraordinarily fine and characterful performance by Charles Mackerras. The Czech Philharmonic is one of a handful of the world’s great orchestras who still have a specific sound. They have this music in their bones and they have a blended more homogeneous timbre - in part defined by the acoustic of the Rudolfinum in Prague - that fits the music like a glove. The Mackerras coupling is the interesting but slighter Fantastic Scherzo.

Sometimes it seems foolish to have multiple versions of a work - in this case I would argue that such is the quality of the music and music-making here that a duplication should be considered if the work features in your collection already. If not, do not hesitate, as the year is turning inexorably towards toward Autumn one last backward glance to Summer seems wholly appropriate. Music and a performance that resonates long in the memory - a strong contender for Disc of the Year status. 
Nick Barnard 

Powerful burnished beauty … simply glorious.