SUK: Piano Music – Jonathan Plowright, piano – Hyperion 

by | Jul 14, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews

The neo-Romantic piano music of Josef Suk has an ardent acolyte in Jonathan Plowright.

SUK: Spring – Suite, Op. 22a; Summer Impressions, Op. 22b; Piano Pieces, Op. 7; Moods, Op. 10 – Jonathan Plowright, piano – Hyperion CDA68198, 76:38 (6/29/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Like most auditors of Czech music after Smetana and Dvorak, I found the music of Josef Suk (1874-1935) via his lovely Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 6, courtesy of a performance at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre by a Taiwanese, youth chamber ensemble under the direction of Helen Quach, a pupil of Nikolai Malko. His keyboard music has until now remained obscure in my experience; but Jonathan Plowright (rec. 6-8 September 2017) of the Royal Academy of Music makes Suk’s essentially lyric, salon style thoroughly accessible in this recording.

We begin with the collection of six Pieces, Op. 7, composed 1891-93 and published in 1894. Given their overtly romantic, even courtly, character, they depict emotionally the composer’s affection for Antonin Dvorak’s daughter Otilka, whom Suk married in 1898. The opening Love Song declares itself passionately, the manner more resonant than that of Schumann, more sultry in character than the brief pieces of late Brahms. The two Little Idylls—originally designated as “waltzes”—capture the lovers in the rain, while the fifth piece, an expansive—at first, almost funereal—Dumka, may describe a brief lovers’ spat that ends in reconciliation. Here, Suk follows the style of Dvorak, whose own dumky alternate slow and fast tempos. The most Schumann-inspired piece would be the Humoreska, Allegretto grazioso, a nervous waltz which well recalls something of Chopin. The Memories (“Recollections”) section harbors waltz or nocturne like intentions by way of its arpeggiated, modal syntax. The middle section, on the other hand, assumes a more vigorous, virtuoso character. The final selection, Capricetto, begins with a hearty swagger but later becomes more introspective.

Portrait of Josef Suk

Josef Suk

Suk composed five Moods between 1894-95. Already expressive of his personal emotions, the suite combines a narrative sensibility with the composer’s efforts to synthesize elements from the Prague Conservatory. First-beat accents and syncopes typify the Czech style, as well as a tendency to flatten the seventh degree of the scale to effect a mixolydian mode. The two-part writing avoids polyphony but delights in thirds and sixths. The opening Legend (in D-flat Major) has a robust Lisztian fervor. A kind of polka, the Capriccio (in E-flat minor) sways and lilts whimsically in the manner of gypsy Brahms. The heart of the set, Romance, expresses ardor in a broad melody supported by angular harmonies, much resembling Liszt. The Bagatelle seems thoroughly meditative and understated and could be attributed to Grieg. The last piece, Spring Idyll, Vivace, exudes youth and bravura energies, playing via Plowright as a brilliant etude in the manner of Anton Rubinstein.

The two sets of “seasonal” pieces, Spring, Op. 22a and Summer impressions, Op. 22b (c. 1901-02) testify to Suk’s desire to master what scholars call “the time of large forms.” Suk had written a four-movement Suite, Op. 21; but here, in these character pieces devoted to the seasons, he returned to the ternary form of the Czech lied. The beginning of the century provided Suk much happiness, with the birth of son Josef in December, 1901. The five movements of Spring celebrate the old conceit of new life, new possibilities, and new directions (to allude to Schumann). The opening, exuberant “Spring” motif (in E, evolving from an inversion of D) unifies the entire suite. The intervals of the major second and perfect fourth also find their way to variation and embellishment. The designations dolce and dolcissimo indicate the tenor of Suk’s love of nature, solidified in Plowright’s bell-tones. The breeze is in C Major and favors modal, irregular syntax established in Debussy. The jumpy character of the piece could invoke The Prophet Bird in Schumann.  In Expectation simply retains most of the “Spring” structure, here a ballade or nocturne, with an ascending motif in free, often voluptuous, variation. The spirit of Grieg haunts the unnamed, asterisk (Andante) movement contrasts in dark, harmonically threatening gestures in A minor, and some read into this one-page tone-poem a hint of wife Otilie’s heart disease, especially since the Asrael Symphony is set in this key. A sense of ardent triumph infiltrates Longing in D-flat Major. Plowright emphasizes the return of the “Spring” fanfare in its transposed tranquillo guise, a sweet remembrance of happy days and youthful optimism. By the way, Artur Schnabel was fond of performing this suite.

The idiosyncratic sonority of open fifths announces “At noon” from the 1905 suite Summer impressions, Op. 22b, another Schnabel favorite. The chime effects—especially those which exploit the upper register of Plowright’s Steinway—and melodic directness carry homage, it would appear, to Debussy. The second movement, Children at Play, reinforces the “children’s corner” sensibility. The last piece, Evening mood, provides an extended, transcendentalist meditation in modal harmony, the neo-Romantic music reminiscent of that of Czech composer Vitezslav Novak. The music rises in the manner of an exalted hymn, similar in spirit to Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 12 in D-flat. The alternately soft and muscular tones of these works has been graciously preserved thanks to Recording Producer Jeremy Hayes.

—Gary Lemco

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