SUK A Summer's Tale; Prague
Regarding British performances of music from beyond these shores, Jiří Bělohlávek is to Czech repertoire what John Wilson is to Broadway: both have imported unprecedented levels of musical authenticity, in Bělohlávek’s case climaxing in his superb live Martinů symphony cycle (also for Chandos) and this fine coupling of works by Josef Suk. The added advantage here is the exceptional acoustic of the Watford Colosseum, potentially a godsend but only when a crack production team knows how to exploit its strongest qualities.
Both scores convey the essence of Suk’s orchestral style, his wide range of musical moods, the subtlety of his palette, his expert use of solo instruments (woodwinds especially), his distinctive harmonic language and his ability to chart powerful climaxes without resorting to bombast. In lesser hands the close of Praga can sound like a filmic recollection of Má vlast’s finale but not here, where the cumulative impact of the piece (complete with thundering organ) is immense. Praga does indeed call on the famous Hussite theme that Smetana ruggedly manipulates in ‘Tábor’ and the effect achieved by Suk is similarly humbling. Bělohlávek’s performance presents a more integrated tone-canvas than does Libor Pešek with the Czech Philharmonic for Supraphon, where the brass are more strident, though the Czech woodwinds are inimitably individual.
Pešek’s coupling, like Bělohlávek’s, is the sizeable, at times Scriabinesque A Summer’s Tale, a slightly later piece that calls on those same qualities of interpretation – sensitive balancing, an appreciation of textual variety, a keen appreciation of shifting perspectives and an ear for musical line. As with Praga, this richly scored and often exciting early-20th-century score is infused with local flavouring, at times disquieting (startling premonitions of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony at 2'52" into the second movement, ‘Midday’), and Bělohlávek holds the tension in both pieces from the first bar to the last. Wonderful!