Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Fantasy in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 24 (1903) [23:05]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, “The Wandering of a Little Soul” (1926-27) (reconstruction Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štědroň, 1988) [11:45]
Antonín DVOŘAK (1841-1904)
Concerto in A minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 53 (1882) [31:10]
Josef Špaček (violin)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. live, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 22-24 October 2014 (Suk, Janáček), 8 September 2014 (Dvořák). DDD
SUPRAPHON SU4182-2 [66:12]

Two-thirds of the contents of this disc duplicate one of my favourite Czech recordings, the Dvořák and Suk works with Josef Suk (grandson of the composer) and Karel Ančerl conducting the Czech Philharmonic also on Supraphon. Those recordings date from the 1960s. Now some fifty years later, we have accounts that challenge those classics. The Suk Fantasy has not received all that many recordings, so any new one is welcome, superbly performed as it is here. If anything Josef Špaček, the young concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic, makes an even more powerful impression than his illustrious predecessor. His is a full-blooded performance with the Czech Philharmonic under its music director with him all the way. Yet he can also relax and he plays the lyrical theme with rapt beauty beginning about 5:45 and later returning near the end of the piece (from 20:58). The warmer recording, which has a nice bloom on the violin sound, also helps. The Suk/Ančerl recording is a bit drier and tighter, but still sounds good all these years later. With Špaček/Bělohlávek one is aware of all kinds of orchestral detail that does not make as much of an impression on the earlier disc. The work itself can seem a bit long for its material, but such is the dedication of these artists that it does not wear out its welcome. I was never so aware before of its debt to Dvořák and there are also light, rhythmic passages following the lyrical theme that remind me of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.

Janáček’s so-called Violin Concerto has an interesting history. As Petr Kadlec indicates in his substantial notes to the CD, Janáček intended to compose a violin concerto and already had a title, “The Wandering of a Little Soul,” but later changed his mind and used some of the material for it in his last opera, From the House of the Dead. Czech scholars Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štědroň reconstructed the concerto based on the composer’s surviving sketches in 1988. The work is more of a suite of themes in one movement rather than a traditional concerto but has a cogency all its own. It clearly sounds like the late Janáček we know from his Sinfonietta, Glagolitic Mass, and later operas. Violinists have seemed to be eager to pick it up, as it has received a number of recordings and has lately appeared on quite a few concert programmes. I have come to know the concerto through the recordings of Thomas Zehetmair and Christian Tetzlaff. Špaček and Bělohlávek have the measure of the music and compare well with them. Josef Suk also made a recording, which I have not heard, and there is another new one with James Ehnes as volume 2 of Edward Gardner’s Janáček series on Chandos. I cannot imagine the concerto being better played than by the artists on this Supraphon CD. Špaček’s tone is lustrous and the Czech Philharmonic is an ideal partner with the colourful orchestration brought out well.

The most familiar and longest work on the disc is, of course, the Dvořák Violin Concerto. Josef Suk’s account with Ančerl may remain my favourite because of its absolute rightness, and the recording made in 1960 still sounds very good. Špaček and Bělohlávek’s concept of the piece is quite similar to that of the earlier performance, and the advances in recording are notable. Suk’s recording has its own rewards in that everything is heard very clearly, which suits the incisive nature of the performance. Špaček’s tone seems fuller and the sound of the violin as well as that of the orchestra more opulent with a bit longer reverberation period. Even so, Bělohlávek and Špaček invest the work with dynamism and, like Suk and Ančerl, do not shortchange the dance elements. It was very revealing to compare these artists with another recent recording, Anne-Sophie Mutter’s with the Berlin Philharmonic under Manfred Honeck (DG). There everything seems exaggerated with Mutter pulling the work about with excessive portamento and Honeck contributing his own heavy-handedness. The last movement, which should sound like a Slavonic dance in the joyousness of its furiant-based theme, with Mutter and Honeck sounds more like a race in a fast machine that leaves one exhausted. The Czech accounts capture the dance rhythms with perfection. In the slow movement both Suk and Špaček are naturally much more straightforward than Mutter, who nearly does the music in by dragging it out so. That is not to say the Czechs lack feeling; they just don’t spread it on with a trowel. There is one place at 4:00 in this movement where Špaček is more spacious than Suk in his rendering of the gorgeous melody, but both interpret it with a subtlety that is miles away from Mutter’s exaggeration.

From my discussion it seems obvious that I have nothing but praise for these new performances. As Suk’s have stood the test of time, I am confident that Špaček’s will be viewed as of equal stature. I had the privilege of hearing these forces last November at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Špaček did not have a concerto in which to star at this concert, but he had a not insignificant role to play in Janáček’s Taras Bulba. Before the concert Špaček led a discussion on the works they would perform. I was as impressed with his knowledge of the music and ease of discussing it, as I am with his performance. With this his second recording as a soloist (the first included violin sonatas of Prokofiev and Janáček), the young violinist has embarked on what is a very promising career.

Leslie Wright


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