«Suk: Piano Music”
Summer Impressions, Op. 22b,
Piano Pieces (6), Op. 7,
Jonathan Plowright (Piano).
For the Czech musical public in the early decades of the twentieth century, the names of two of Dvořák’s pupils, Vítěslav Novák and Josef Suk, loomed large. Within two generations, however, Leoš Janácek—at the time seen by Prague’s musical intelligentsia as a wild and woolly outsider from Moravia—is now incontrovertibly accepted as the leading figure in Czech music after the death of Dvořák. But perspectives shift and in the last thirty to forty years the music of Suk has begun to make its mark on concert repertoires across Europe. His string serenade in E flat major of 1892, much approved of by Brahms, is increasingly a favourite with conductors and audiences, as is his great ‘Asrael’ symphony.
In common with many Czech composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Suk’s origins were in a musical family from the Bohemian countryside rather than Prague. Tutored in his early years by his father, also Josef Suk, the school- and choirmaster of the small village of Křečovice, Josef junior soon moved on to the capital and from 1885 studied at the Prague Conservatory. He made remarkable strides in both composition and performance, staying on for a final year of study with Dvořák (who had joined the staff of the Conservatory in 1891) and graduating with an orchestral work, the Dramatic Overture, in 1892. Alongside his compositional activities, Suk specialized in chamber music with Hanuš Wihan, the leading Czech cellist of the day and the dedicatee in 1895 of Dvořák’s B minor cello concerto. This association led to Suk becoming the second violin of the Czech String Quartet in 1892, an appointment that initiated a busy, often international career as a performer that continued until his retirement over forty years later.
Suk’s links with the Dvořák family developed strongly through the 1890s and in 1898 he married the composer’s daughter Otilie (Otilka). Dvořák was an enthusiastic supporter of his career throughout this time; the sincerity of his interest can be gauged by a comment made to the composer and viola player of the Czech String Quartet, Oskar Nedbal, in which he described Suk’s incidental music to Julius Zeyer’s fairy-tale play Radúz and Mahulena as music ‘from heaven’. In fact, his music for Radúz and Mahulena, with its intense and abundant lyricism, was an expression of his profound love for Otilka. Her premature death in 1905, hardly more than a year after that of her father, was a devastating blow prompting a deepening of Suk’s style and a greater monumentality in his approach to form as can be heard in the ‘Asrael’ symphony and later orchestral works.
Given the similarity of their backgrounds and obvious personal affinity, it can be tempting to over-emphasize common stylistic traits in Suk and Dvořák’s music. But in fact their musical languages were quite different; one of the great qualities of Dvořák’s teaching was that he saw to it that his pupils were no mere imitators. Even in Suk’s early works there is considerable individuality in both melodic writing and his approach to structure. There is also a strong tendency toward expressive melancholy well before the dual tragedies of the deaths of Dvořák and Otilka.
The four groups of pieces for piano on this recording come from the first half of the 1890s (Opp 7 and 10) and 1902 (Opp 22a and 22b). Along with his professional engagement with the violin, Suk was an accomplished pianist, and from an early stage wrote with idiomatic confidence for the instrument in a series of works that often require considerable virtuosity. In inspiration, most of his piano music can be located firmly within the traditions of the romantic character piece. Along with such conventional designations as ‘Capriccio’ and ‘Romance’ found in the earlier sets of Opp 7 and 10, Suk also adopted the picturesque titles favoured by Schumann and also found in many of the solo piano collections of Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček.
Suk’s Op 7 collection of piano pieces is a gathering of individual works composed between 1891 and 1893, and first published as a whole in 1894. The first in order of composition is the concluding Capriccietto (originally entitled ‘Melody’); it begins with determination, but concludes on a reflective note. The next two to be written were the two Idylls. Originally entitled ‘Waltzes’, they were first published in 1893 as ‘Winter idylls’ (‘Zimní idylky’), dedicated to Nasťa Haškovcová, a friend of Suk’s sister Emilie, in an anthology of Slavic piano music assembled by the composer Zdeněk Fibich. Unquestionably waltz-like in rhythm, the first has a wistful quality sustained into the second where, after a more impassioned central section, the piano figuration seems to be evoking the sound of the cimbalom. From 1893, the Song of love (Píseň lásky), originally entitled ‘Romance’, was the last to be composed and is the longest of the set. After a languorous beginning, it develops passionately before a return to the sultry mood of the opening. The Humoresque is a brief, excitable waltz (its original title); it is followed by Recollections (Vzpomínky) whose opening may owe something to the start of the second movement of Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ trio. After the Idylls, the first of the two remaining movements, Dumka, begins with the measured tread of a funeral march, but this is leavened by a delightfully open-hearted central section before the opening returns with even greater seriousness. Suk’s understanding of the ‘Dumka’ manner is very close to that of his father-in-law Dvořák: essentially, it involved the alternation of slow, thoughtful music with episodes of a more optimistic nature.
The group of five Moods (Nálady) which concludes this recording were composed between 1894 and 1895 and published by the Berlin publisher Simrock in 1896; they were dedicated to the Viennese pianist Clothilde Kleeberg who often played with the Czech Quartet. The opening Legend is expansive with a strong sense of epic narrative incorporating moments of almost Lisztian rhetoric. The Capriccio which follows is a poised and whimsical movement in Polka rhythm. The brief Romance at the heart of the set is characterized by surging melody often underpinned by exploratory harmonies. An understated Bagatelle leads to a racy, good-humoured finale entitled Spring idyll (Jarní idyla). As a whole this set impresses by its balance of both form and technique, not to mention the considerable demands it places on the performer.
The two cycles Spring (Jaro) and Summer impressions (Letní dojmy) were composed in 1902. Seven years on from the Moods, they were from a very different time in Suk’s life when early aspiration had given way to the contentment of marital bliss. Married to Otilka for four years, he had just experienced acute joy at the birth of their son—another Josef—an event that cemented his feelings of contentment and security. Nearly two decades later, he wrote to the musicologist Otakar Šourek about these years in which he produced music ‘of joy, full of love’. The reason both cycles share the same opus number (22a and b) derives from Suk’s original intention, made clear in a letter to his publisher, to produce four collections based on the seasons; unfortunately, he did not get around to composing Autumn and Winter.
The opening number of Spring communicates an almost uncontainable feeling of joy and lightness. The mercurial second movement is entitled The breeze (Vánek); Suk was an admirer of the music of Debussy and it is unsurprising to detect Impressionist colouring in the piano’s evocation of the caress of the wind. The remaining three pieces are united by a falling melodic figure, first heard just after the opening of the first movement. The third number, Awaiting (V očekávání), is perhaps the most conventional of the set while the fourth is the most enigmatic. Interestingly, in Suk’s original manuscript both the fourth and fifth movements were given the title Longing (V roztoužení), and were marked to be played ‘attacca subito’ without a break, but on publication the title of the fourth was replaced by three asterisks. What uncertainty seems to be present in this penultimate movement is resolved in the affirmation of the finale.
The three pieces of Summer impressions, composed shortly after Spring, were published the following year, although the public premiere did not take place until 1905. Suk was delighted that their first outing was given in Berlin by none other than Artur Schnabel, described by Suk in a letter to his Prague publisher, Mojmír Urbánek, as ‘one of the world’s greatest pianists’. Schnabel also included the fourth and fifth numbers of Spring. As a whole, the music of Summer impressions is rather more personal and original than that of Spring. The opening movement, At noon (V poledne), is both ear-catching in terms of piano sonority, outlining evocative open fifths, and speaks with a melodic simplicity that is both novel and individual. The two succeeding movements are again somewhat reminiscent of Debussy: the engaging opening of Children at play (Hra dětí) almost suggests that we are coming upon a scene already underway; Evening mood (Večerní nálada) explores more novel, occasionally modally inflected harmony extending still further the expressive frame of these remarkable pieces. Though relatively slight in scale, Summer impressions indicates how far Suk had developed from the accomplished if more conventional world of his piano music of the early 1890s.