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Josef SUK (1874–1935)
Piano Works
Moods, Op. 10 (1894-95) [18:55]
Dumka, Op. 21 No. 3 (1900) [5:12]
Things Lived and Dreamt, Op. 30 (1909) [34:46]
Love Song (1891) [6:28]
Karl-Andreas Kolly (piano)
rec. Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster Germany 27–28 November 2015
MDG 903 1956-6 SACD [65:23]

Certainly there is room in the catalogue for a new recital of Josef Suk's piano works. It would be nice to think this might be the first volume of a complete survey. Currently Niel Immelman's four-disc traversal on Meridian remains unchallenged in its scope—and volume one of that series was released in 1994. Margaret Fingerhut on Chandos and Pavel Štěpán on Supraphon have contributed partial sets. The Štěpán holds some claim to being the most authoritative in terms of artistic heritage and is nearest to Immelman in terms of 'completeness'. Finally, single discs from Risto Lauriala on Naxos and Radoslav Kvapil's recital formerly on Unicorn is now available on Regis. Give or take, that is pretty much it aside from pieces included in mixed composer recitals.

The new disc benefits from modern up to date SA-CD sound although as is normal, MDG's favoured house production style the engineering is neutral placing the piano in an acoustic that draws no attention to itself. The very simplicity of this approach makes for a pleasingly unfussy presentation. The piano used turns out to be of some interest although the liner alone gives little indication of this. Courtesy of the MDG website, the provenance of this 1901 Steinway is made much clearer. Before discovering this information I must admit that I was not wholly convinced by the sound it makes. For my preference, the upper range is just fractionally veiled. Of course, this might also be a function of Karl-Andreas Kolly's playing but for all the undoubted technical brilliance of the playing I felt the sound slightly heavy and lacking in sparkle.

The MDG liner is slightly perverse. The main work offered is the Op. 30 cycle Things Lived and Dreamt. The liner makes the point that Suk asked for his rather individual expanded titles/directions to be included in any listings, which the liner and CD cover then singularly fails to do. However, they do quote Pavel Štěpán who wrote, "For Suk, in the overall conception, different works grow together to form a single cohesive statement." Just so—at first glance it can seem that Suk has written 'little' collections of salonesque pieces. This is far from the case. Yes, there can be instances where the music has a lyrical flow and harmonic palette of the salon rather than the concert-hall but Suk was a master of the meaningful miniature. Combine a set of ten such works together as in this Op. 30 cycle and it makes for a widely varied and rewarding listening experience. These should be listened to as a set.

The Swiss pianist Karl-Andreas Kolly is particularly good at the pieces that demand a grandly romantic rhetorical approach. It goes without saying that he is completely on top of all the technical requirements for these often thickly-scored works. The very opening Legend from the Op. 10 set Moods also shows his gift for giving the music an effective ebb and flow. Elsewhere I am not quite so convinced when the music needs a simpler or lighter mood. In the same set, No. 4 Bagatelle—or more so the closing No. 5 Spring Idyll—lack a sense of filigree embellishment. In the Idyll, for example, Immelman takes very nearly a full minute longer than Kolly his approach while obviously having a slower basic beat emphasises the naiveté of the music—a sense of open air buoyancy that I like a lot more than Kolly rather driven and overtly virtuosic approach. Interestingly, Štěpán's timing is almost identical to Kolly but his lightness matches Immelman. There is a joie de vivre here absent in Kolly.

The same strengths and reservations hold true for the main cycle too. Kolly is very good indeed when drama and power are required. The Adagio No.5 which sits at the heart of the work in every sense On the recovery of my son, calmly with deep feeling is movingly played. But once more I find that Immelman - again, a full minute longer than Kolly - finds the balance of calmness and deep feeling even more impressively. He has a poise Kolly cannot match. This time Štěpán is the same as Immelman in timings and he is excellent too although the 1970's recording cannot match the warmth and richness of the newer ones.

To get a sense of the range of Suk's piano music does require more than a single disc. As mentioned, these collections of pieces work best as complete sets and given their substantial scale - the Op. 30 here runs to nearly 35 minutes - it is not possible to accommodate more than a couple on any single disc. As mentioned earlier, I listened to this disc's SA-CD stereo layer. It is also encoded for 5.1 SACD as well as MDG's own 2+2+2 recording technique; for an explanation of the latter see here. So, overall, this is a well-engineered and enjoyable recital but one that does not fully explore the range and richness of Suk's writing for piano. In this regard, Immelman and Štěpán still reign supreme but surely it is about time Supraphon commissioned one of their current roster of fine pianists to revisit this musical treasure trove.

Nick Barnard



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