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Czech Music of the 20th century
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Suite for String Orchestra (1877) [20.17]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Partita - Suite No.1 for string orchestra (1931) [11.27]
Serenata II for 2 violins and viola (arrangement for string orchestra) (1932) [7.20]
Viktor KALABIS (1923-2006)
Diptych for Strings Op.66 (1980) [18.17]
Suk Chamber Orchestra Prague/Josef Vlach
rec. Prague, Czech Republic, September 1988
MDG 601 0317-2 [57.44]

A splendid disc of music for strings from the 19th and 20th Centuries - despite the title above, the Janaček dates from 1877. More of that sort of thing later. The Suite for Strings by Janaček is an early work and not really characteristic of him, more related to Dvorak if anyone. Each of its six movements is attractive and lyrical, with just the occasional hint of his later style in the rhythms. Those who love the music of the mature composer should not dismiss the piece but accept that it is different and has a lot to offer. I would classify it as essential listening, especially in this very good performance. The Kalabis Diptych of 1980 is a more challenging work but only because it is less lyrical and has the angularity and harmonies of late Bartok. It is still an extremely satisfying piece by an important but rather neglected figure. Kalabis made valuable contributions to all the main genres, symphonies, quartets, concerti and chamber music. His output is a rewarding corpus from a man much more influenced by the tonal masters of the 20th century like Hindemith, Honegger and Martinů, than by the Second Viennese School. This Diptych is solemn and has more than a hint of Bartok's Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta, though without its extreme dynamism. The most characteristic pieces on the disc are the two works by Martinů. His Partita of 1931 is a lovely piece written at the height of his powers. The Serenata II is one of the five short serenades he wrote for various instrumental groups. This one is for just two violins and one viola, though played here with great skill by about three of each (it is hard to tell exactly because the documentation is not explicit). Several recordings exist of this delightful and masterly short work, some recorded by small string groups, others with just the three instruments intended by the composer. Both ways work if well enough played, as it definitely is here.

The Suk Chamber Orchestra have been in existence for over forty years and have an admirable list of recordings focussed mainly of Czech repertoire, from the classical to the modern period. This recording is quite old, 1988, and is possibly a reissue, but there is no statement to that effect in the cover or booklet notes. It was obviously made with a minimal number of microphones because it sounds very clean and realistic. I would go so far as to say it sounds outstandingly good. The playing is very fine indeed, as it should be from the famously productive home of so many top string players including the eponymous Josef Suk. To clarify, the violinist who died in 2011 was the first director, and his grandfather, who died in 1935, a composer and also a violinist, was the source of the orchestra's name. The pedigree doesn't stop there for the elder Suk was also the son-in-law and a pupil of the great Antonín Dvořák.

The documentation has several shortcomings, though none that should put purchasers off buying. The orchestral listing includes players who are clearly not playing this program; not many harpsichord, horn and oboe players are needed in string pieces for example. No mention is made of the fact that this is the arrangement for string orchestra of the Martinů Serenata and the note assumes solo instruments; the death of Kalabis in 2006 is overlooked in the notes on the Diptych and as mentioned at the start, the music is not all 20th Century despite the title. MDG should be a lot more careful when editing accompanying material. Nonetheless, I recommend the CD very strongly as a great 57 minutes of musical pleasure.

Dave Billinge


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