Born August 8, 1929; died July 6, 2011
The passing of Josef Suk will prove especially sad for lovers of Czech repertoire who will no doubt own either of his benchmark recordings of the Violin Concerto by his great-grandfather Antonín Dvorák (both versions coupled with the adorable Romance in F minor, which was hardly known before Suk recorded it). His grandfather, Dvorák’s son-in-law, was the composer Josef Suk, whose Asrael Symphony is one of the 20th century’s orchestral masterworks and whose fiery Fantasy for violin and orchestra was another work that Josef junior excelled in. Indeed, it was Josef senior who first gave his grandson a violin, which he started to play at the age of six.
Josef Suk was widely celebrated as, to quote one critic, “a superbly accomplished violinist with a silken tone and complete command of his instrument”. He was just 11 years old when he first played in public. He then travelled to Paris and Brussels representing the younger generation of Czech musicians as part of a cultural exchange. The iron grip of Communism in the late 1940s meant that artists wishing to travel abroad had a hard time of it; but the government knew when it was on to a good thing (Suk was even then something of a legend within the music loving fraternity) and was willing to allow him the privilege of undertaking foreign tours.
The 1950s saw him filling significant roles, as orchestral leader of the Prague National Theatre, as leader of the Prague Quartet and as a founder member of the Suk Piano Trio, whose recordings still command enormous respect. His appearances during the Czech Philharmonic’s world tour in 1959 proved revelatory and his Proms appearances in the mid-1960s inspired countless critical accolades. He went on to make a celebrated recording of the Beethoven Concerto under Sir Adrian Boult. In 1974 he founded the Suk Chamber Orchestra; after the Suk Trio disbanded he played and recorded trios with pianist Julius Katchen and cellist János Starker.
Josef Suk officially retired in 2004, though his lengthy recording career ended only last year with a golden glow and a programme of transcribed “Songs My Great-Grandfather Taught Me” with Vladimir Ashkenazy at the piano (Toccata Classics). Prior to that were numerous memorable highlights, including a fine set of Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas (EMI), Beethoven violin sonatas with his soul-mate piano partner Jan Panenka (Supraphon), various duo sonata recordings and the Suk Trio legacy. Wherever the art of fine violin-playing is celebrated, Josef Suk’s name will be fondly remembered. Rob Cowan