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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
The Works for String Quartet
String Quartet No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 11 (1896) [27:06]
Ballade in D minor (1890) [4:21]
Barcarolle (1888) [2:50]
Minuet [3:28]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 31 (1911) [28:12]
Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn St. Wenceslas, Op 35a (1914) [6:21]
The Suk Quartet (Ivan Štraus (violin), Vojtech Jouza (violin), Karel Řehák (viola), Jan Štros (cello))
rec. 1994?, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London. DDD
CRD 3472 [73:22]

This disc of Josef Suk's chamber music is invaluable and generously timed. As for competition it is up against the very same string quartet - same membership as well - recorded in 1979 and 1984 by Supraphon. That disc (111531-2111) offers late AAD sound where the current disc is in full digital. The Supraphon - which omits the Ballade - was recorded in the Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague while the present CRD disc was taken down in Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead. Last year along came a well-regarded entry (CPO 777652-2) from the Minguet Quartett and Matthias Kirschnereit (piano). In addition to the string quartet works, that CPO arrival also included the Suk Piano Quintet (1893). I have heard neither the CPO nor the Supraphon and deal with the CRD disc in its own right. Playing times from the Suk Quartet for the two principal quartet works are broadly the same across the CRD and Supraphon discs.

The music of the First Quartet is urbane and touching. This last aspect is evident not only in the Adagio but also in the Intermezzo. The busy flutter of the outer movements recalls Smetana's First Quartet. Of great complexity is the single- movement Second Quartet. Its style is a week's march distant from the First Quartet. It echoes with the density, poignancy, scars, lesions and abrasions of the Suk's Asrael Symphony. An unbroken span of music running close to half an hour it's the most testing piece on this disc but also the most rewarding. It can be expressively convoluted but there are many moments where the music reaches out. If you are already captivated by his orchestral Ripening and A Summer's Tale then you need to hear this work.

As a very welcome makeweight we get an almost casual Ballade but it cannot help touching the heartstrings. The Barcarolle is an early work - emotional and tearful. One can imagine it being mined by Kreisler for a 'potted palm' arrangement for violin and piano. The Minuet is an arrangement of a movement from the Suite for piano op. 21. It's a perfectly poised and timed exercise in balancing emotion and classical form. These works are all touched with the wand of sentimentality. Not in the least a makeweight, and having nothing of sentimentality, is the Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn, St. Wenceslas. This seven-minute piece puts Suk on the map in much the same way as Barber's Adagio did for that composer. In that sense it stands as an instrumental requiem for the Great War where the Barber serves the same purpose for the Second World War. It's part of Suk's orchestral War Triptych - the centre-piece between two exhilarating orchestral essays (Legend of Dead Victors and Towards a New Life). I am not sure why Supraphon have relegated Aloys Klima's searing analogue recording of the Triptych (LP: SUAST50476) to the bone-yard - it deserves better. It feels slightly hurried in the CRD recording but its essential eloquence remains piercingly intact.

The CRD balance engineer was none other than Bob Auger whose handiwork in producing natural and airy sound forms one of the virtues of this CD. The liner-note is in English only and the writer is John Tyrrell, the Janáček expert and author of books on Charles Mackerras (2015) and Czech Opera (2005).

An open-handed, sensible and substantial entry in the Suk stakes in 1990s digital sound. The performances leave you in no doubt as to the searing impact of the Meditation and the Second Quartet and the attractions of the First Quartet.

Rob Barnett



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