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Album review: Josef Suk, A Summer's Tale

By William Dart

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A Summer's Tale by Josef Suk. Photo / Supplied
A Summer's Tale by Josef Suk. Photo / Supplied

Frustrated by that irksome gap in your CD collection between Stravinsky and Szymanowski? Hankering for something obscure but not overly challenging? A new Chandos recording of music by Josef Suk (1874-1935), brilliantly played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jiri Belohlavek, may restore equilibrium to your life.

The Czech composer was Dvorak's son-in-law and not averse to penning the occasional Bohemian dance when required, but this CD goes for the monumental, in two vast orchestral canvases.

Not only is Suk's A Summer's Tale just a few minutes short of an hour but it is the first instalment of a trilogy of symphonic poems spanning a decade from 1909-1929. The blazing sun of Late Romanticism never set for Josef Suk, who could be seen as a Czech Mahler, without the Austrian's trademark neuroses. The exotic languor of the work's third movement looks back even further to the world of Borodin.

Moments of rapture sweep through this score at regular intervals, bordering on the ecstatic, if your stereo is up to it. Belohlavek comes up with the same ardent advocacy he has lavished in the past on fellow countrymen Dvorak and Smetana.

Nevertheless, Suk's long, often languid musical summer may have some wishing for the crisper astringency that autumn brings.

Prague, the second work on the disc, occupies a comparatively modest 24 minutes. It was written in 1904, after the death of both his father-in-law and wife, who passed away within days of one another. This shattering personal loss comes out in the lovely solo violin writing of the second movement (Suk himself was a noted concert violinist and chamber music player) but most of the musical language is a good deal heartier.

This is essentially card-carrying nationalism, right from the first stirring vision of the beloved Czech capital, with pages that constantly threaten to morph into Sibelius' Karelia. Suk's father-in-law is not forgotten. The celebrated theme from the older composer's New World Symphony returns throughout the piece, sometimes with a Wagnerian grandeur that may have tweaked Dvorak's funny bone.


4/5 stars
Josef Suk: A Summer's Tale (Chandos, through Ode Records)
Verdict: "The splendours of Josef Suk's long, and occasionally hot Czech summer prove spectacular but not totally fade-proof."

- NZ Herald

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