Josef SUK (1874-1935)
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
It’s not long since I gave a warm welcome to a fine live recording of Suk’s tragic masterpiece, Asrael, by these same artists (review). Now they’ve recorded two more of his substantial orchestral works, this time under studio conditions.
These works were composed either side of Asrael. In fact the musical portrait of the city of Prague was composed in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Dvořák and Suk’s wife, Otilka. As Graham Melville-Mason suggests in his note Suk probably found solace in work although Prague is not the grief-stricken elegy one might have expected him to compose in those circumstances; that would come withAsrael. Prague is a fairly straightforward work, certainly by comparison with its companion on this disc; it looks at the “history and mystery” of Prague, as Melville-Mason puts it. It’s built around two musical ideas: the Hussite chorale, ‘Ye warriors of God’ and a love theme that Suk lifted from his incidental music to the play Radúz a Mahulena (1897-8); this latter theme is first heard on the oboe (track 6, 5:22). This symphonic poem contains colourful, illustrative music celebrating Prague’s heritage. It’s not always subtle and the organ - splendidly caught here - and bells pile in for a somewhat grandiloquent finish (track 9 from 2:16). However, it’s effective, enjoyable and radiates a definite and genuine - though not jingoistic - national pride. Bĕlohlávek and his orchestra make a fine case for it. The recording I’ve had in my collection for many years comes from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Libor Pešek, issued in 1993 by Virgin Classics (VC 7 59318 2). It’s a very good performance and recording but this opulently recorded Chandos version splits the work into four separate tracks, which is very helpful; the Virgin version is on a single track.
A Summer’s Tale was composed after Asrael. It’s on a huge scale, lasting nearly 55 minutes here - the 1995 Virgin performance, again from the RLPO and Pešek (VC 5 45057 2) is scarcely shorter, coming in at 51:56 - and, like Asrael it is scored for a very large orchestra indeed. The problem that I have with it - and it’s not dissipated by this fine Bĕlohlávek performance - is in understanding what it’s about. In my humble opinion it’s hard to treat it as a symphonic poem, despite the fact that Suk gave it that title. There’s no narrative thread running through it - or if there is it’s not spelt out in Graham Melville-Mason’s note nor in the more detailed and, frankly, more helpful note by John Tyrrell that accompanied the Pešek recording. Furthermore, unless I’m missing something, which may well be the case, there doesn’t seem to be much linkage between the five movements, though John Tyrrell points out that in the finale, ‘Night’, some use is made of what he describes as the “plodding march” from the second movement, ‘Midday’. So, I’m not sure what ‘tale’ it is that Suk is relating here. I’m rather inclined to think that A Summer’s Tale is more akin to a suite.
That said, the individual movements each contain a good deal of very interesting and good music and Suk’s use of his vast orchestra is consistently resourceful and inventive. Of particular note in terms of scoring is the central movement, ‘Intermezzo’. Despite the array of orchestral colour at his disposal Suk pares back the forces to minimal proportions, scoring this short piece simply for two cors anglais, two harps, solo violin and viola and a small string group. This movement apparently depicts two blind musicians who Suk had encountered on a country road, playing the same dull tune over and over again. Interestingly, this movement represented yet another raid on the score for Radúz a Mahulena; this little piece was an additional number that Suk had composed for a revival of the play in 1907. It’s interesting music but I don’t really understand how it fits into the scheme of A Summer’s Tale other than the fact that it follows another movement that depicts a heat-hazy scene at midday.
The extended opening movement is entitled ‘Voices of Life and Consolation’. Graham Melville-Mason comments that in it Suk “is thought to be emphasising nature’s healing powers and directing a positive face to the world after the bleakness of Asrael.” I must say that, to my ears, the positive aspect takes some time to come through. The opening is subdued and serious and it took a while before I detected much in the way of a positive countenance. However at 4:35 a cor anglais solo ushers in some pastoral wind writing and thereafter the mood and textures of the music become somewhat lighter. Indeed, there’s a lot of rather delicate scoring in the following paragraphs and even when an extended climax is attained it is powerful but not in a tragic way. That climax dissolves into a seraphic, slow violin solo over a most delicate accompaniment. The tranquil last couple of minutes put me slightly in mind, rather to my surprise, of some of Delius’s nature music, albeit voiced with a Czech accent.
The fourth movement, ‘In the Power of Phantoms’, is perhaps the most remarkable movement of all. It’s a multi-sectional scherzo depicting a spectral, strange world. You might almost call it a ‘fantastic scherzo’ though in temperament, style and scoring it’s light years away from the genial work to which Suk actually gave that title. It’s an intriguing movement and Suk’s imaginative and colourful use of the orchestra is quite remarkable at times. It comes to a strange, subdued conclusion that perhaps prepares us for the final movement.
This movement, which I hesitate to call a finale, is entitled ‘Night’ and here the music is essentially calm. There’s also a certain nobility at times and the last few minutes are tranquil. One senses that perhaps Suk has found peace, if not complete peace, after the bereavement traumas that led to Asrael. Eloquently played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it’s a moving and satisfying end to this substantial score.
I don’t think A Summer’s Tale quite attains the stature of Asrael. For one thing the work doesn’t hang together anything like as convincingly. Nor do I think the musical ideas are quite as memorable. That said, there’s a good deal of fine music here and Suk handles his material and his orchestra with great assurance. The performance by Bĕlohlávek and what is now his former orchestra is very fine indeed and while the Pešek account is by no means eclipsed Bĕlohlávek’s reading, excellently played, directed with conviction and recorded in sumptuous, clear sound deserves the warmest possible welcome.
Like their recent Asrael this pair of performances represents the partnership between Jiří Bĕlohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at its fruitful best. Though he is no longer their chief conductor they will continue to work together. Let’s hope that will include more recordings: it would be marvellous if they were to record more Suk, especially Ripening and Epilogue.
John Quinn

See also review by Nick Barnard (September 2012 Recording of the Month)
This pair of performances represents the partnership between Jiří Bĕlohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at its fruitful best. 

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