The latest release in the BBC Legends series is fascinating from both a musical and a historical standpoint. Two live recordings of concerto performances by one of the twentieth century's outstanding violin virtuosos are, without question, an exciting prospect in their own right. Add to this the momentous significance of a Proms debut, with the soloist performing a work that his great-grandfather had written eighty-five years earlier, and you have a disc of undoubted appeal before it has even been placed in the CD player. When you press the eject button after nearly seventy-three minutes of uplifting artistry, you will regret that the music ever had to come to an end.
Antonín Dvořák's Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 endured an arduous gestation period prior to its premiere in 1883. Following its composition in 1879, the composer liaised closely with his publisher (Simrock) and the work's dedicatee (celebrated violinist Josef Joachim), making hefty revisions to both the solo part and the orchestral score. Similarly, Josef Suk's interpretation of his ancestor's masterpiece was a long time in the making. His first public performance of the work came at the 1958 Prague Spring International Music Festival, when Suk was already four years into his concert career – a surprise, perhaps, as his family ties would have made the Concerto an obvious repertoire choice from the very beginning. His subsequent, continued advocacy of the work propelled him to world-wide fame, and down a path that would eventually lead to his first appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in the summer of 1964.
There is hardly a violin concerto that could offer the Promming public a starker introduction to the soloist. After the orchestra's bold-but-brief preamble, Suk is immediately thrust into the fray, stating his and the composer's intent by delivering the fiendish opening gambit with characteristic style and panache. This sets the stage for a refreshingly self-assured and direct performance of the movement, ending with a truly haunting, grief-stricken rendition of the coda. The ensuing Adagio is profound and empathetic, featuring a wonderfully picturesque employment of violin portamento. Listen out for the high C-sharp towards the end of the movement (at c. 8:50) which soars over the orchestra with searing intensity. In the scintillating Finale, Suk seamlessly traverses a tightrope between folk musician and concert virtuoso, disposing of torrential double-stops and semiquavers with consummate flair. His rustic tone is well-suited to this music, even if it sounds a little forced on occasion (perhaps a symptom of trying too hard to project in an unfamiliar and voluminous arena).
Suk's impassioned account is enhanced by Sir Malcolm Sargent's remarkably perceptive and energetic reading of Dvořák's score at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sensitive woodwind solos abound throughout the performance, and the horns warrant a particular mention for their ebullient turns in the limelight.
If you believe that Suk's musico-familial lineage must lift his account of the Dvořák Concerto to greater precedence on this disc, however, then think again. If anything, his performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 – documented a year later – hits even loftier heights. Suk's timbre has sweetened, the partnership between soloist and conductor has strengthened, and the balance between violin and orchestra borders on perfection – astonishingly so, for a concert recording. Indeed, there are vast swathes of music in which one would be forgiven for thinking that this account was produced in a studio, such is the standard of intonation and refinement from all parties.
The first-movement Allegro, ma non troppo is most notable for its brilliant cohesiveness. Though temporally a touch faster than some recordings, the music retains a strong feeling of organic respiration throughout. Sargent's rigorous Beethovenian tutti passages are gloriously entertaining, and Suk's glowing musicianship is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The unidentified cadenza is a revelation, ingeniously recalling the major themes of the movement under Suk's expert guidance. The central Larghetto exudes love and tenderness, with an exceptionally ethereal recapitulation featuring Suk's glistening melody over the pizzicato orchestral accompaniment. Crisp and clearly demarcated playing make for a thrilling climax in the Rondo, which is met – quite rightly – by vigorous audience approval upon its triumphal conclusion.
By releasing these superlative accounts in this, the year in which Josef Suk turns eighty, the BBC has found an ideally appropriate way of honouring one of the Czech Republic's – and, indeed, the world's – greatest living musicians. We, as lovers of classical music, are most fortunate to be the beneficiaries. Be sure not to miss out.
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CD Review: Yakov Kreizberg conducts Dvorák Symphony No.6 (Pentatone)
CD Review: The Florestan Trio play Antonín Dvorák Opp. 21 and 26 (Hyperion)