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Josef Suk's A Summer's Tale: Six decades of recordings.

In one of his very last letters, written in February 1911 from New York to Vienna, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) referred to his plan to hold a symphonic Czech Evening in the Austro-Hungarian metropolis. The centrepiece of the programme, compiled of orchestral works by Czech composers, was to be a recently completed piece by Josif Suk (1874-1935), A Summer's Tale, Op. 29 (1907-1909). Following the world premiere of Antonin Dvoftik's final orchestral work, the symphonic poem A Hero's Song, Op. III (4 December 1898, Vienna), and after the first staging of Bedfich Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride at the Metropolitan Opera (19 February 1909), Mahler intended to present music by another Czech composer, and thus bring it global renown.

On 21 February 1911, Mahler conducted a concert in New York for the last time, and three months later, on 18 May 1911, he died. Hence, the Viennese music lovers did not get to hear his account of A Summer's Tale. The Vienna premiere of the piece was conducted in 1910 by Oskar Nedbal (1874-1930), Suk's fellow student in Dvorak's composition class at the Prague Conservatory. A Summer's Tale had first been performed in Prague a year previously, on 26 January 1909, by the Czech Philharmonic, under the baton of Karel Koval'ovic (1862-1920), to whom the work was dedicated.

Although A Summer's Tale--unlike the older, five-movement Symphony in cminor, Asrael, Op. 27 (1905-1906)--seems to be virtually devoid of any auto-biographical traits, its genesis and musical content have most frequently been interpreted through the lens of the composer's life. A Summer's Tale does not feature any moofs from Suk's earlier (1902) Summer Impressions for piano, Op. 22 (the composer employed the theme of the At Noon section in his 1904 symphonic poem Praga), yet the same gloomy tones present in Asrael do open its first movement (Andante sostenuto--Allegro appassionato--Andante--Allegro moderato--Allegro energico--Allegro con brio--Andante sostenuto). A Summer's Tale begins where Asrael ends: while by writing Asrael Suk had sought to get over the deaths of Antonfn and Otylie Dvorak, A Summer's Tale reflects his trying to find solace amidst nature. It was not for the first time that Suk, a member of the Czech Quartet, had drawn inspiration from nature and the summer. Yet A Summer's Tale marks his definitive farewell to the Czech Romantic tradition of musical rendition of nature, as we know it from Smetana's and Dvorak's works. Accordingly, the piece is more akin to Dvorak's 1896 tone poems based on K. J. Erben's folk ballads than to his father-in-law's Symphony No.8 or the programme concert overture In Nature's Realm. What A Summer's Tale does have in common with Asrael, however, is the five-movement structure. Yet even though in terms of its proportions, treatment of moofs, structure, sequence of the movements and thematic cohesion A Summer's Tale does reveal Suk's symphonic inspirations and ambitions, the piece rather comes across as a suite of five symphonic poems: Voices of Life and Consolation, Midday, Blind Musicians, In the Power of Phantoms and Night. In A Summer's Tale, the conventional summer pastorale gives way to a human being, either a seeking person (the introductory theme possessing a considerable variation potential in the high strings at the beginning of the opening movement) or a woman, whose shadow--according to Suk himself--emerges in the consolatory tones of the trio in the fourth movement, In the Power of Phantoms (Adagio--Vivacissimo--Andante--Vivacissimo--Animato -Andante con moto--Tempo 1), whose patrons might as well be Berlioz, Dvorak or Mahler. The theme of nature enters the piece in the cor anglais, accompanied by the flute, imitating bird song. The second movement (Moderato) is a rhythmically heavy hymn to the glowing summer sun, while the third (Adagio) is the only movement to carry a certain autobiographical message and refer to an actual event--the composer's childhood memory of encountering blind musicians whom he, bewildered, followed from his native Ki'ecovice to the neighbouring village, where he would later on be found in tears. Attesting to Suk's high opinion of this engrossing five-minute composition is his recycling of it in the revised incidental music for Julius Zeyer's drama Rad1iz and Mahulena (1914). His instrumental mastery and harmonic boldness are perhaps best manifested in the fourth movement, which is succeeded by the final section (Adagio--Piu mosso--Tempo 1 - Andante sostenuto e maestoso--Poco meno mosso), which, besides the archaic hymn, utilises all the moofs of the preceding movements. A Summer's Tale is written for a gigantic orchestra, including two flutes, oboes, cors anglais, clarinets and bassoons, a piccolo, bass-clarinet and double bassoon, six horns, three trombones and trumpets, a tuba, timpani and a percussion set, two harps, an organ, piano, celesta and full string section.

The first commercial studio album of Suk's A Summer's Tale was made six decades ago, in late August 1957 at the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum in Prague, at the very end of the monophonic era. Just a few months later, the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Karel Sejna, would have recorded it in stereo. Sixty years down the road, it is still hard to believe just how many fine details of Suk's filigree score the sound director MiJoslav Kulhan and the sound engineer Miloslav Kuba managed to squeeze on to the brittle disc. The first movement is characterised by a striking sonic and motivic transparency, significant traits of the entire recording, imbued by Sejna--humbly serving Czech music in the studio and on the stage, conducting works by Dvorak, Fibich, Martinu, Smetana and Suk--with a true Sukian exacerbated timbre. Particularly remarkable are the second and third movements, Midday and Blind Musicians. The Czech Philharmonic under Sejna breathes heavily, wearied by the sheer humidity of the July fields, while the sordined trumpets in Midday are still unsurpassed as regards the blurred sound, whose forcibility is even intensified by the seemingly imperfect period recording. In Blind Musicians, the cors anglais stumble over each other, cross each other's paths, instead of slavishly blending their parts precisely in line with the score. Regrettably, Sejna's affection for Mahler has only been captured by the Supraphon label on a recording of the conductor's performance of SymphonyNo. 4 in gmajor, since in Sejna's account the scherzo of In the Power of Phantoms acquires almost Mahlerian dimensions and ambitions--in his hands, the feverish movement, texturally akin to Suk's Fantastic Scherzo and Asrael, does not let the listener take a breath, does not lose its nerve throughout, rolling like a deliriously hot dream, an emotional hallucination. After the scherzo ultimately collapses under a stroke on the bass drum, it passes through arpeggio chords in the harp to Night. The final movement's conclusion, combining the sounds of the piano, celesta, high strings and flute, may well be deemed the very apex of the Czech Philharmonic's period performance excellence. The trumpets, not always intonationally self-confident in the high register, come across as authentic, imparting the recording with the atmosphere of rural brass music. Sejna's discography encompasses plenty of similarly remarkable albums--featuring Zdenek Fibich's symphonies and melodramas, Vitezslav Novak's tone poems, Antonin Dvorak's Slavonic Dances and Legends, Bedrich Smetana's My Country and other works--yet his account of Suk's A Summer's Tale (51.56: 14.37 - 5.51 - 4.54 - 11.07 - 15.08) remains an underestimated gem in the Supraphon archives. All the later recordings of Suk's opus have thus been compared with this monument to Sejna's mastery, an exquisite successor to Vaclav Talich's benchmark recordings of Suk's pieces (the suite Fail) Tale, 1949; Serenade in E flat major, 1951; Asrael, 1952; Ripening, 1956).

The next recording of Suk'sA Summer's Tale was made some 27 years later, in February 1984, when Supraphon produced the first digital disc, featuring the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Libor PeSek. At the time when the studio album was made, PeSek had served as a permanent guest conductor of the prime Czech orchestra since 1981, a post he would remain in until 1990, when its chief conductor, Vaclav Neumann, was replaced by Jiri Belohlavek. Whereas Neumann's Suk project included recordings of the Fairy Tale, Symphony in E major, Fantasy in gminor, Asrael, Ripening and Epilogue (1982-1986), the task to make the first digital recording of A Summer's Tale was undertaken by PeSek, who regarded Josef Suk's music as part of his core repertoire and a heartfelt matter as well. Unfortunately, PeSek's recording suffers from the shortcomings characteristic of the majority of the albums produced by Supraphon and the Czech Philharmonic in the infancy of the digital era, with the unpleasant sound of the high strings and trumpets making one regret that the recording had not come into existence at the end of the 1970S in analogue stereo format, as had, for instance, the sonically markedly better Neumann album of Dvorak's symphonic poems. In terms of tempo, PeSek's account is very similar to that of Sejna's (52:19 = 14.29 - 5.50 - 4.56 - 11.23 - 15.26), yet I still cannot shake off the impression that the music drags along, in the first movement in particular. On the other hand, PeSek did succeed in somewhat reviving the Suk symphonic style that had been pursued by the conductors of the Talich generation, especially as regards the emotionally charged performance of the Blind Musicians. The finale, far more masterfully built and gradated than the opening movement, is the satisfactory culmination of PeSek's creation (on the majority of the releases, combined with Suk's tone poem Praga). Nevertheless, the recording was not the last that PeSek would make of A Summer's Tale--a decade later, he would return to the composition as the music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Before PeSek had made his recording in the UK, in 1993 A Summer's Tale was recorded in a studio by the legendary German conductor and champion of contemporary music Michael Gielen, who this year celebrated his 90th birthday. The very first non-Czech recording of Suk's piece, which was soon broadcast on the radio and released on disc, actually came into being by sheer chance. A friend of Gielen's presented to the conductor the score of A Summer's Tale and asked him to guess the composer. He immediately ruled out Bartok, Schonberg, as well as Scriabin, Zemlinsky... Gielen, who was not familiar with Suk at the time, was engrossed by the work, primarily owing to the modern, novel orchestration, and exclaimed: "A masterpiece that no one knows. Come on! I thought so. It must be perfom!ed right away!" And he duly did so--if the sources can be believed--within a single recording session. Even though I would expect an even more transparent sound, the German radio recording is masterfully balanced in acoustic terms, and those who happen to hear Suk's piece for the first time as approached by Gielen would be struck by it as a revelation. Although Gielen, a connoisseur of Mahler's music, does not put Suk up on a pedestal next to Mahler, he clearly believed in Suk's work. His studio recording presents A Summer's Tale to the listener within the context of the strings' objective German sound and the straight tone of the woodwind instruments. The specific tang of the Suk orchestra may have been cast aside, yet the elastic rhythmicity, faster tempos <50:46 = 14.03 - 5.26 - 4'38 - 10.53 - 15. 23), and the precise intonation of the high strings and woodwinds make the piece comprehensible and attractive to the audience. The vivid tempos beseem the first movement, as well as the intermezzos, with the Midday section captivating the listener by the legible, crystal-clear tremolo in the strings, while the sound of Blind Musicians is impresionistically intoxicating. As approached by Gielen, the Night movement does not come across as sonorously eerie as it does in the Czech recordings, yet his Mahlerian scherzo seems to be unrivalled, be it in terms of its dramatic gradation or the inventive dealing with the clarinet part. The soft tutti of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, combined with a transparent sound, hold out the mirror to the Czech interpretation tradition. Gielen's recording was a true milestone in the performance of Suk's music.

In May 1994, A Summer's Tale was again taken up by Libor PeSek, the one and only conductor who can pride himself on having made two recordings of the extraordinary piece. The series of albums of Suk's works PeSek made in Liverpool also contain recordings of Asrael (T990/12), Ripening (1991) and Epilogue (1997). In line with his placid, amicable attitude to orchestras, by no means did PeSek force the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to imitate the Czech timbre. Consequently, under his baton, straight off in the first movement the brass instruments generate tones markedly more dramatic than those we are accustomed to hearing in the case of other Czech-helmed recordings. This resulted in particular in the sonically more objective scherzo, which, however, is not as agogically refined as that of Gielen's creation, recorded a few months earli er. PeSek's studio recording, with its duration being exactly the same as Sejna's <51:56 = 14.50--6.15-5.II - 10.45 - 14.52), may serve as a prime example of a pleasing performance of the work, the sonic appeal of whose score, dating from the time of late Romanticism and impending Modernism, is increased by both the pedal-tones in Midday and the foggy sound in Blind Musicians. The solid quality of A Summer's Tale especially stands out in comparison with the other recordings PeSek made in Liverpool. I personally would even venture to place it above the later recording of the piece created in the UK by Jiri Belohbivek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

In January '996, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra made in a Bratislava studio the third radio recording of Suk'sA Summer's Tale (if we are also to count the one made in Prague by Josef Hrncir, conducting the Czechoslovak Symphony Orchestra, which has long since been unavailable on the market and hence the present article does not reflect upon it). A British artist participated in the Bratislava project too--the conductor Andrew Mogrelia, whose recordings of symphonic and orchestral works by Fibich, Novak and Suk had filled the gaps in the discography of the Naxos label. Although one may expect it to be the "weakest" of the performances, the recording is far from being an "outsider", owing in no small part to its being in accordance with the good tradition of the recordings made by Central European radio orchestras, objective in terms of sound and tempo (rewarding to the audience). Performed relatively nimbly (50:41 = 13-26--6.05 - 5-32 - 10.56 - 14.43), the recording may be deemed to be an ideal guide for those previously unfamiliar with Suk's music (especially given its low price). In precious few recordings are the development passages of the first movement as sonically transparent as on this recording, which, however, in places lacks sufficient rhythmic and agogic elasticity, for instance, in the barcarolle sections of the introductory movement. The rather average performance of the two intermezzos and the relatively poor execution of the scherzo are compensated for by the final e, in which Mogrelia particularly succeeded in making all the moofs from the previous movements immediately recognisable. Similarly to PeSek's earlier Liverpool creation, the recording too may be defined as slightly above average. Nevertheless, the value of Mogrelia's album is greatly enhanced due to its containing the overture Taleqfa Winter's Evening, Op.9, perhaps the most overlooked of all Suk's works.

The next studio recording of A Summer's Tale was made in December 1997 by yet another UK.based artist, the Australian Sir Charles Mackerras, conducting the Czech Philharmonic. Along with his accounts of Rusalka (Decca 460 568) and Dvorak's Violin Concerto and Suk's Fantasy, featuring the violinist Pamela Frank (Decca 460 316), the album, released by Decca--ideally combining A Summer's Tale with another Suk piece, FantasticSchm:.o, Op. 25--ranks among the Czech Philharmonic's greatest accomplishments at the end of the first millennium. When it comes to the audio quality, I would rank Mackerras's A Summer's Tale for Decca higher than the recordings he made at the time at the Rudolfinum hall for Supraphon (featuring music by Janacek, Dvorak and Martinu), as well as his 2007 recording of Suk's symphony Asrael (SU 4043-2). The Decca sound engineers duly made use of both the Rudolfinum's acoustic fortes (with an occasionally guileful longer reverberation) and the dark sound of the strings, which so becomes Suk's work. Mackerras managed to coerce the orchestra into being rhythmically flexible (a property it lacks in the case of numerous Czech Philharmonic recordings dating from the time) and also made them attain soft dynamic sublimities, including stark dynamic contrasts in the fourth and fifth movements, which always land on the velvety pillow of the Rudolfinum's acoustics. Yet, unsurprisingly, Mackerras, at the time a permanent guest conductor with the Czech Philharmonic, failed to remove all of the orchestra'singrained bad habits, which are above all palpable in the string section's insufficient interplay, mainly evincing itself in the scherzo in the In the Power if Phantoms movement. Nevertheless, owing to the thorough knowledge of Suk's musical idiom, gained during the time of his studies with Talich, Mackerras conceived a remarkable recording, one that, from among the later recordings, is definitely most akin to the Sejna model. The introduction to the first movement flows like honey, without the tiny moofs in the development blending together. Mackerras had a sensibility for the sonic surprises that are often present in Suk's scores, a quality that he brought to bear, for instance, at the end of the first movement, with the orchestra literally exhaling, and in Midday, whose motif struts like the stork. I consider Midday to be the true adornment of the recording it pulsates and is exemplarily gradated. Similarly defined can be the third movement, in a slower tempo, yet with a truly intoxicating sound. When assessing the recordings of Czech provenience, the scherzo in the In the Power if Phantoms movement as approached by Mackerras is perhaps the closest to Mahler's herzos, owing in part to the reliable performance of the woodwind section. A genuine treat for the listener is the finale of the work, as regards the setting of the chords in the piano and celesta alone, which are followed by the splendidly recorded chord in the low strings. The Czech Philharmonic of the 1990S are not recalled with enthusiasm in all respects. Nonetheless, Mackerras's recording, featuring lively tempos (50:12 = 13-36 - 5-36 - 5.10 - 10.41 - 15.09), floats timelessly as a perfect interpretation of Suk's piece. An exceptional accomplishment indeed, it towers like a landmark in the Czech Philharmonic's discography dating from the 1990s.

Had it not been for Kirill Petrenko, all the currently existing recordings of Suk's A Summer's Tale would have been made in radio studios (Gielen, Mogrelia, Belohlavek), or in collaboration with standard symphony orchestras. Yet in 2002, 2004 and 2006, Petrenko, who will soon become the next chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, brought to fruition a three-part Suk project (not including the Epilogue) with the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin, who in addition to executing their theatre-related duties have given regular performances within their own subscription concert series, in accordance with the praiseworthy practice in the German-speaking countries. Even though Petrenko's live (!) recording does not possess a trace of the singular Czech style, it does possess by a number of virtues, starting with a very specific sonic conception and ending with the intriguing coupling of Suk's piece with Anatoly Lyadov's symphonic poem The Enchanted Lake (1909)' Josef Suk Jr. himself lauded Petrenko's recording of Asrael. Deserving equally high esteem is Petrenko's account of A Summer's Tale, which on his recording made in January 2004 in Berlin features becomingly vivid tempos (49:44 = 13-30 - 5.39 - 5.26 - 10.12 - 14'57), particularly in the middle movements. On the lucid recording (on precious few recordings are the introductory bars in the low strings as clearly audible as in the one made by Petrenko on the Komische Oper stage), the first movement vehemently rushes forward, while the ceaseless dynamic gradation (Midday) and agogic vivification are the key standout qualities of the album, which you will undoubtedly want to listen to again. As performed by Petrenko, the wild scherzo of In the Power if Phantoms will give you the willies, while the final movement, Night, attests to the (perhaps surprising) qualities of the recording. Regrettably, one would be hard pressed indeed to imagine that the leading Czech opera orchestras (in Brno, Ostrava and Prague) could have implemented a similar album. Well, we shall eagerly await the Czech projects Kirill Petrenko may pursue in the future as the chief conductor of the Berliner Philhamoniker. Let us hope he will undertake Suk's scores too.

The most recent recording of A Summer's Tale was--again--the result of Czech-British collaboration. It was made in January 2012 in the UK by JiN BelohIavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The CD significantly extended the conductor's Suk discography. Whereas he and the Czech Philharmonic had made a recording of the String Serenade, Fantastic Scherzo and Asrael for Chandos back in the 1990s, Belohlavek only got around to making recordings of A Summer's Tale, Ripening, Praga and Symphony in E major while based in London (if we do not take into account Belohhlvek's recording of Asrael at the Prague Spring festival 2008, the CD containing the Fantasy, made with the Czech Philharmonic and the violinist Josef Spacek, and the older recording of the String Serenade with the Prague Philharmonia, the latter two released on Supraphon). In his 2012 London recording, Jii'i Belohlavek opted for very slow (54:25 = 15.04 - 6.50 - 5.34 - 10.54 - 15.40), relatively monolithic tempos, which, however, do not always benefit the impression, especially when compared with the agogically more vigorous performances captured on the recordings made by Gielen and Mackerras, let alone Petren ko.

The Andante sostenuto in the first movement drags on. The conductor's extremely precise tempo reading in the first two movements even comes across as monotonous. The scherzo of In the Power of Phantoms sounds cumbersome too. The absence of considerable differences in tempo and rhythm seems to be the most pertinent in the movements Midday and Blind Musicians, with the latter making Belohlavek's recording definitely worth listening to--the sonic transparency and serene tempo let the section blossom into a small orchestral gem. The finale markedly raises the standard of the recording, which as a whole would certainly have benefited from a greater tempo and rhythmic flexibility. By and large, Belohlavek's London recording has confirmed my conviction that the technical faculties and sonic qualities of the BBC Symphony Orchestra are eclipsed by those of the German radio orchestras in Hamburg and Munich. Moreover, I would like to point out that the five-channel SACD format has done the Chandos recording a world of good, serving as it does to highlight the fortes of Suk's colourful score. Belohlavek's album, coupling A Summer's Tale and Praga, met with great acclaim on the part of the British critics, and even won the 2017 Gramophone Classical Music Award in the Orchestral category. Owing to Belohlavek's endeavours, Suk's A Summer's Tale has finally earned the international critical acclaim it so richly deserves. Let us hope now that the piece will be performed regularly on concert stages. At least in the Czech Republic.

* Czech Philharmonic, Karel Sejna: 1957, Supraphon SU 1923-2

* Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Josef HrnCir: Radioservis

* Czech Philharmonic, Libor PeSek: 1984, Supraphon SU 3864-2

* SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Michael Gielen: 1993, SWR Music, Edition Michael Gielen Vol. 4, SWRJ9028CD

* Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Libor Pesek: 1994 Virgin Classics 50999 6 28530 2 6

* Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia: 1996, Naxos 8'553703

* Czech Philharmonic, Charles Mackerras: 1997, Decca 466 443-2

* Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin, Kirill Petrenko: 2004, CPO 777 174-2

* BBC Symphony Orchestra,Jiri Belohlavek: 2012, Chandos CHSA 5109

by Martin Jemelka
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Title Annotation:czech music / focus
Author:Jemelka, Martin
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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