Thursday, July 14, 2011

JOSEF SUK, 1929 - 2011

An elegant heir of a proud musical tradition. 

The Czech Republic lost a beloved member of its music community and an irreplaceable part of its cultural heritage when Josef Suk died last week, one month shy of his 82nd birthday.

A world-renowned violinist, Suk carried more than his personal ambitions when he made his concert debut in Prague in November, 1954. He was a member of the first family of Czech music, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Antonín Dvořák, and his grandfather, Josef Suk (who married Dvořák’s oldest daughter), both esteemed musicians and composers. When he began touring with the Czech Philharmonic in 1959 and then as a soloist in the West, he was an emissary from a country hidden behind the Iron Curtain and the bearer of the Czech canon.

Through it all Suk let his instrument do the talking, and it spoke eloquently of a proud musical tradition. Trained by violin virtuoso Jaroslav Kocián at the Prague Conservatory, Suk developed world-class technical skills and a disciplined yet poetic style that was known for its purity of tone and rich expressiveness. His was one of those rare voices that is instantly recognizable, clear and compelling with an emotional intensity that transcended cultural and political barriers.

And the world responded. Suk began recording with Supraphon in 1958 and over the course of his career appeared on 410 records on that label, the last a 2008 release of chamber works by his grandfather and great-grandfather. In 1999, he received a platinum disc for sales of 1.1 million records. Among the many other awards and honors he received were six Grand Prix du Disque de l’Académie Charles Cros from France, the Flötenuhr Prize from the Mozart Society in Vienna for his recordings of Mozart violin concertos, and the Edison Prize from the Netherlands for recordings of Bach sonatas and partitas.

That range of awards reflects the remarkable breadth of Suk’s talent. He was equally adept as a concert soloist and a chamber musician – the latter a natural fit, given his grandfather’s position as second violinist in the seminal Czech Quartet, which established the modern standard for string quartets. Suk was running his own chamber trio at the age of 22, and continued working with chamber groups throughout his entire life. He was also an accomplished viola player, and at one point in his career would give recitals playing violin the first half, and viola the second.

Suk retired from performing in 2002, but remained active in the recording studio and with occasional concert appearances and private recitals. He was also an energetic supporter of chamber music in Prague and young musicians, lending his name and encouragement to efforts like Young Prague, the annual showcase of promising players from Europe, Japan and the United States.

On the several occasions this critic was privileged to hear Suk play, it was like being transported to another time, a lost era of Old World elegance. His style was formal yet deeply felt, his sound warm and full. In his hands the music not only came alive, but felt like a sacred trust, resonant with ideas and aspirations and achievements reaching across generations and centuries.

A memorial service for Suk is being held at 11:00 this morning at the Rudolfinum. His funeral Mass will be at the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Vyšehrad at 11:00 tomorrow. Afterward, his remains will be interred at Vyšehrad Cemetery along with the rest of the nation’s cultural heroes.

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