In the mid-1930s the Soviets were on the up – Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian. The Americans too – Copland, Harris, Hanson, Barber. Men among hundreds out to leave their mark. But pre-war Europe was in last rites mode. Elgar, Holst and Delius died within four months of each other, in 1934; Widor, Pierné, Roussel and Ravel within ten months, in 1937. In 1935 the Czechoslovaks lost Josef Suk in May and Otakar Ostrčil in August. We generalise and omit – but tragedy more than triumph, the mounting farewell of those dark European days, somehow crowd the mind.
Jonathan Plowright's latest Hyperion release, a superlative album in all ways, lusciously played and recorded, reminds of a keenly attuned early obituary writer, Vladimír Helfert, who noted Josef Suk's “rich and spontaneous musical talent”, and lifelong affection for all things pastoral Bohemian. He was not without his prophetic, modernist moments but, predominantly, his tensions and expressive language identified less with the psychology and rhythm of Janáček (the “wild and woolly outsider” from Moravia, older by nearly twenty years) than the triadic warmth and cloaked contours of Dvořák (his teacher, inspirer and father-in-law). Double-tragedy struck in 1904 and 1905 with the deaths of Dvořák and then Suk's young wife, Otilie (Otilka), prematurely from heart failure at the age of twenty-seven.
Plowright's selection covers the period before, from 1891 to 1902, latterly a time of marital bliss, Suk recalled years later, of “joy, full of love”. Spring and Summer Impressions (1902) are all that remain of an intention to compose a 'seasons' cycle – the 'autumn' of Dvořák and the 'winter' of Otilka were no doubt reason enough not to persevere. The Opus 7 Pieces (1891-93) are an apprentice collection, touching, among other things, on love, idyll and dumka. Moods (1894-95) date from between the Piano Quintet and First String Quartet.
We don't meet here with Suk in a bigger-limbed context, nowhere is there a suggestion of sonata dynamic or development. But, inescapably, poetry and fine-laced sensitivity are high on the agenda. In his booklet note, Jan Smaczny mentions a “strong tendency towards expressive melancholy”. Recurrently, this was a signature Suk trait. Of the slow movement of the fin de siècle First Symphony (Opus 14), Helfert back in 1936 spoke of “shadows of a tragic foreboding”. Listening to these twenty tracks, the enduring impression is of a master miniaturist. Design, climax, decoration, niceties of articulation, brevity, tapered cadences, a rich grasp of textures and chordings from the most sensuously, glowingly voluptuous to glassy fragility all stand out – gloriously harmonised late-Romantic melodies that soar one moment to sink into lingering Slavonic dream the next. The reverie of it all is extraordinary. Dvořák's piano pieces are rarely far away, occasionally Smetana's too, but Suk's writing is more grateful and idiomatic, taking comfortable advantage of the modern instrument, with enough beef to balance the soufflé. That pedalling is more than occasionally left to the player's discretion leaves the door open to personal input and variation.
These gems demand holistic embrace. But if you want to dip into their mood journeys, try tracks 2 (Opus 22a/1 – sec, dolce, capricious); 4 (22a/4 – malignant sprites, water, evening); 5 (22a/5 – ‘Longing’, ripples, reaching upwards). 6 (22b/1 – mysterious, luminous, scales major and foreign, phantasmagoric); 7 (22b/2 – fantastical play, tempo rubato); 9 (7/1 – love's scenario, passion and urge, pre-Rachmaninov without the chromatic subtext). 14 (10/6 – ‘Dumka’, tone poem); 16 (10/1 – oddly presaging Lennon & McCartney’s Michelle); 20 (10/5 – ‘Spring idyll’, virtuosic and vernal before flaring then fading like curls of smoke at dusk).
There's not much to choose between Plowright and Margaret Fingerhut on Chandos, recorded in Snape Maltings in 1990. Both have the measure and style of the music, both play with skill and imagination, and timings are not dissimilar. But where she can be cooler in her emotions (and omits Opus 10), Plowright is more deep-throated, willing to pause, wanting to draw the utmost from the lower register of his Steinway. He goes for depth and beauty, not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve but wary of sentimentality. Radoslav Kvapil (in an Alto box these days) works his way through these pages efficiently enough, as you'd expect, if, for my taste, rather spinelessly.