Josef Suk’s orchestral works are one of the glories of 20th-century Czech music. His Summer’s Tale and Prague are two remarkable treasures, and it would be hard to imagine a more enjoyable realisation of them than on this disc, from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiri Belohlávek.
While Suk learned much from his teacher and father-in-law, Dvorák, perhaps the most valuable lesson was not to emulate him. And he looked far beyond his homeland’s musical traditions to allow Debussy, Richard Strauss and Sibelius to colour, though not dominate, his style. The 1906 Asrael Symphony, dedicated to the memory of Dvorák and Suk’s wife, Otilka, who died within a year of each other, was the start of an orchestral odyssey which led through A Summer’s Tale, (1908), the autobiographical Ripening (1917) and the dark 1933 Epilogue
Like Dvorák, Suk sought solace in nature and effortlessly evoked its numinous comforts in A Summer’s Tale. In the first of its five movements he explores the consolations of the natural world, the heat-haze of a summer noon in the second and in the third, a haunting Intermezzo, blind musicians plying their trade quite unaware of the beauties of a summer’s day. The fourth movement is a brilliant, at times disturbing, scherzo which sweeps away the poignancy of the Intermezzo before the concluding movement, a deeply moving and cathartic evocation of a summer’s night. Prague of 1904 is in the mould of Romantic treatments of Czech history, its triumphs and vicissitudes. It is enormously invigorating, with glimpses of the city’s past, symbolised by a Hussite chorale, and its beguiling beauty.
As ever, Jirí Belohlávek’s interpretations of these two richly-textured scores are deeply considered, but never at the expense of passionate involvement or spontaneity. Notwithstanding their engagingly discursive natures, neither work is allowed to sprawl, and at every stage Jirí Belohlávek’s pacing enhances Suk’s abundant inspiration, often with intoxicating results. Throughout, the BBC Symphony Orchestra responds magnificently as an ensemble, bringing an almost operatic excitement to Prague, but also in the abundant solo opportunities offered, notably in some marvelous cor anglais tone, accompanied by solo violin, viola and harps, in the exquisitely-orchestrated Intermezzo commemorating the blind musicians in A Summer’s Tale. Both performances stand very high measured against the exacting tradition of some great Czech performances and are well served
by this excellent recording.