Wednesday 26 August 2020

Powerful advocacy: Kiveli Dörken, Christian Tetzlaff and friends in piano music and chamber music by Josef Suk

Josef Suk Piano and Chamber-music; Kiveli Dörken, Christian Tetzlaff, Florian Donderer, Timothy Ridout, Tanja Tetzlaff; ARS Produktion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 August 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Powerful advocacy turns this from a disc of rarities into a superb exploration Josef Suk's smaller scale music

Josef Suk Piano and Chamber-music; Kiveli Dörken, Christian Tetzlaff, Florian Donderer, Timothy Ridout, Tanja Tetzlaff; ARS Produktion
The composer and violinist Josef Suk is perhaps best known as the pupil and son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak, and if we think of Suk's own compositions at all, we tend to think first of his mammoth Asrael Symphony which was written in 1905/6 in memory of Dvorak (who died in 1904) and of Otilie, Suk's wife (who died in 1905). This new disc from Ars Produktion gives us another, more intimate side to Josef Suk. Pianist Kiveli Dörken plays Suk's 1909 suite of 10 character pieces Životem a snem (Things Lived and Dreamt), and she is joined by Christian Tetzlaff and Florian Donderer, violins, Timothy Ridout, viola, and Tanja Tetzlaff, violoncello, for Suk's 1893 Piano Quintet in G major, Op. 8.

Suk's earlier compositions date from the 1880s, but he had his first successes with his Piano Quartet, Op1, Piano Trio Op. 2 and Two pieces for Violoncello and piano, Op. 3 and then came the Piano Quintet in 1893. Clearly Suk's own violin playing (and he founded the influential Bohemian String Quartet in 1891) was a big influence. Other significant influences on the young man's music were his teacher and mentor, Dvorak, and of course Brahms (who had been a big supporter of Dvorak's music), and in fact the Piano Quintet is dedicated to Brahms. But that is not the end of the story because, as with much else of Suk's compositional output, he was not entirely satisfied with it (though it was widely praised) and finally in 1915 he revised the work. But, despite the influences, we can hear Suk's own distinctive character in the music too.

The initial Allegro energico springs into action immediately with playing of energy and vigour, we can hear Brahms and Dvorak here and the music is perhaps somewhat backward, but there is also a different voice and the robustness subsides into passages of uneasy repose, though in the development section the more strenuous passages are distinctly Brahmsian. Throughout the playing is exemplary, the performers give the impression that they have been playing this music together for years. As might be expected from a composer who was aviolinist, this is not one of those quintets which are more like a mini-piano concerto, all five instruments have a balance in the texture with plenty of give and take. The second movement is marked Andante religioso and begins with a lovely delicacy and clarity, instruments weaving in and out of the texture, but also an underlying lilting lyricism, as if Suk's Czech musical heritage could not be held in check, though as the music develops it gets progressively more intense.

The delightful Scherzo is full of joy, with a lovely contrasting trio where Suk explores the different textures possible with his line up. The Finale opens with a dramatic piano statement which evokes Suk's models for this quartet, and then the energy is full of suppressed excitement until the main theme returns vigorously. This is robust, out-doorsy music, but with an inner emotional complexity.

The cycle of piano character pieces was complete in 1909, and Suk did not write that much solo piano music. He called it the 'diary of an artist' and movements refer to autobiographical moments such as his son's illness, or remembering his parents. The results are surprisingly varied and engaging, and Suk's role in ushering Czech modernism is all to apparent in this work. Moving from the end of the quintet to the first movement of the piano suite is to enter a different world. There is a greater sense of modernism here, that Suk was a contemporary of Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg.

Suk does not give all the movements titles, and we are left with a distinct sense of an unwritten narrative. The overall sense of the piece is Schumann-esque, in the way that movements emerge and disappear, each registering briefly a strong, contrasting emotion. But the harmonic language is that of the early 20th century. The result intrigues and engages, and Suk can surprise us as he moves from movement to movement; most are quite short, but number five 'On the recovery of my son' makes a sober and substantial heart to the piece, in contrast to the sly winsomeness of other movements including an eighth movement which appears to be nodding to Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk and more. The cycle ends in a soberly thoughtful manner, 'To the forgotten graves in the corner of Krecovice Cemetery', a reminiscence of his parents and late wife. Dörken plays the music with powerful advocacy, bringing out the different strands of emotion, as convincing in wry delight as in sober reflection

The line-up for this disc is intriguing; though Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff both play in the Tetzlaff Quartet, the other two players to not make up the remainder of this ensemble. However, that need not concern us overly when the playing has so much emotional depth and engagement. There is a chance to hear in person as the group will be playing Suk's Piano Quintet at LSO St Lukes on Friday 30 October 2020 [see LSO St Luke's website].

You might not consider that you need a disc of Josef Suk's chamber music but the emotional commitment and depth of the playing here, the sense of the chamber ensemble functioning as one and Kiveli Dörken's powerful advocacy of the solo piano work make this definitely a disc worth hearing, rising above mere curiosity value.

Josef Suk - Piano Quintet in G major, Op. 8 [31.44] (1893/1915)
Josef Suk - Životem a snem, Op. 30 (1909)
Kiveli Dörken (piano)
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Florian Donderer (violin)
Timothy Ridout (viola)
Tanja Tetzlaff (cello)
Recorded 14-17 October 2019, Sendesaal Bremen
ARS PRODUKTION ARS 38 298 1CD [68.11]

Available from Amazon.

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