Classical Reissue Reviews

SUK: Piano Quartet in A Minor; Four Pieces for Violin & Piano; Piano Quintet in G Minor – The Nash Ensemble – Helios

Josef Suk’s chamber music strikes out on its own melodic path in these captivating works, brilliantly performed by the Nash Ensemble in 2003.

Published on September 14, 2012

SUK: Piano Quartet in A Minor; Four Pieces for Violin & Piano; Piano Quintet in G Minor – The Nash Ensemble – Helios

SUK: Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 1; Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 17; Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 8 – The Nash Ensemble – Helios CDH55416, 72:58 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The music of Josef Suk (1874-1935) may lie under the giant shadow of Dvorak, but he has his own dark ethos and a definite melodic gift. The turning point in his life, the successive deaths of Dvorak and his daughter and Suk’s wife Otilie, in 1904 and 1905, respectively, led to the composition of his potent Asrael Symphony in 1906. While Suk stood in a direct line to Dvorak creatively and personally, he benefited from the master’s insistence that pupils evolve according to their own lights. So, even Suk’s Op. 1 Piano Quartet (c. 1892) enjoys a solid musical identity and strikes out on its own dramatic course from first to last.

After a strong Allegro appassionato first movement, smooth with transitions to secondary tunes, the Adagio becalms us in a glowing mystique wrought by cello and piano, here Paul Watkins and Ian Brown. When Marianne Thorsen’s violin joins them, the plaintive nocturne assumes the kind of resonant, sweet power we attribute both to Dvorak and his own guiding beacon, Schubert. The center of the movement assumes even more magic, transparent and pearly, allowing the viola (Lawrence Power) its own song in the sun. The Bohemian element defines the last movement Allegro con fuoco, an assertive march tune that serves as scherzo and finale, passing through a number of persuasively mounted episodes. Ian Brown can strum his keyboard with the best of them, and his dynamic balances lull us into the instrumental mix at every turn. The fiery last page demands a swift re-hearing. Recorded originally 30 November 2001 for Hyperion, this sterling reissue enjoys a potent sonic patina.

Suk’s Four Pieces, Op. 17 (1900) are he product of his admiration for violinist Karel Hoffmann. These angular characteristic pieces appealed to the late Ginette Neveu and David Oistrakh. The opening Quasi Ballata pulsates in declamatory and bravura passagework; unfortunately, Helios fails to identify the excellent violin solo as either Marianne Thorsen or Benjamin Nabarro. The ensuing Appassionato: Vivace vibrates with edgy power, and Brown’s bass harmonies in the keyboard support an eerie gypsy fur in the violin part. The middle section takes a cue form the Schumann Piano Quintet march funebre trio section. The Andante espessivo follows the course of a dumka, haunted and lyrically melancholy in the manner of chorale or opera aria. Last, the Burlesca, played like a brilliantly colorful, perpetual motion etude for two bravura instrumentalists.

Despite its year of publication, 1915, the G Minor Piano Quintet dates from 1893, dedicated to Johannes Brahms. The ardent and lyrically poignant writing brings out tender mercies from the viola, as if in homage to Dvorak’s own instrument. Meanwhile, the cello introduces beauties of its own, certainly in deference to Brahms procedures.  The color shifts to G Major, and Ian Brown adds heartily rich chords and runs of his own, almost a concertante piano piece with string ensemble accompaniment.  Brown comes to the arpeggiated fore again in the Adagio: Religioso movement, the chorale ethos reminiscent of Tchaikovsky or Czech liturgy. Cellist Paul Watkins leads the inspired procession forward, delicate pluckings above and bucolic figures below. In its darker and passionate colors, the music might pass for Faure, except the modalities prove more Slavic than French.

Suk employs a pentatonic scale for his Scherzo: Presto, a tried-and-true ploy in Czech music. Totally infectious, the jaunty rhythms and striking colors from viola and keyboard leap at us much in the sprightly manner of Dvorak. The wild ride of the da capo returns with unbuttoned vigor, the seamless playing completely beguiling our sense of discovered a real gem. Finally, Allegro fuoco, the last movement gathers a “symphonic” sound together for an often polyphonic excursion that employs motifs from movement one, Dvorak style. A few bows to recording producer Andrew Keener for this delightful portrait of genuine melodic voice in Czech music.

—Gary Lemco




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