Suk: Fairy Tale (CD review)

Also, Fantasy in G minor; Fantastic Scherzo. Michael Ludwig, violin; JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572323.

You have to give conductor JoAnn Falletta and her Buffalo Philharmonic credit for tackling works that are somewhat out of the mainstream, music from the likes of John Corigliano, John Duffy, Kenneth Fuchs, Daron Hagen, Jack Gallagher, John Powell, and Marcel Tyberg, as well as more familiar folks like Richard Strauss, Franz Schubert, and Ottorino Respighi. On the present disc she undertakes the music of violinist, teacher, and composer Josef Suk (1874-1935), whom more people probably know in his native Czechoslovakia than know him in America. Indeed, people may even know him better as Antonin Dvorak's son-in-law than as a musician and composer of tone poems. He was first a student of Dvorak and then married Dvorak's daughter. But both his mentor and his wife died in the years 1904-05, devastating the man. The music we get on this disc, however, comes from earlier and happier times.

The program opens with the Fantasy in G Minor, Op. 24, which Suk wrote in 1903. It begins with a healthy blast of sound and then moves into kind of Bohemian Gypsy territory, where we hear the influences of Dvorak and something of Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt. I'm not sure what this twenty-three-minute piece represents, but with violinist Michael Ludwig lending it a delicate tone and Ms. Falletta providing a sympathetic and often robust accompaniment, it is surely captivating in its varying moods, from sentimental to exuberant.

The centerpiece of the album is Suk's Pohadka (Fairy Tale), Op. 16, from 1898, a suite of four movements drawn from music he wrote for a theater piece. Much like Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, with flashes of Smetana's Ma Vlast, the Fairy Tale describes events in the lives of two lovers, a Prince and Princess from rival kingdoms and their conflict with an evil sorceress. The section titles are self-explanatory: "About the constant love of Raduz and Mahutena and their trials"; "The game of swans and peacocks"; "Funeral Music"; and "Runa's curse and how it was overcome by true love."

Like his Russian and Czech counterparts, Suk provides plenty of color in this music, and like Richard Strauss and other tone poets of his day, he conjures up vivid images in his compositions. Falletta and her players seem almost joyous in their desire to make these stories come to life, with Ludwig's violin always sweet and light. No, Suk's music does not convey the same exquisite beauty or elicit the same excitement as Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade does, and Suk's suite gets more than a little bombastic toward the end, but that doesn't stop the performers from giving it their best shot.

The program ends with the Fantasticke Scherzo in G Minor, Op. 25, from 1903, another evocative work from Suk. It was for me, unfamiliar with this music, the highlight of the disc, reminding me in part of Mendelssohn and Bax. Lilting, airy, flamboyant, and a little overwrought, it is nevertheless mostly delightful in its rustic, bucolic way. As always, Ms. Falletta and her forces play it with a zesty charm.

Is any of this great or memorable music? No, Josef Suk has not quite made it into the pantheon of truly important classical composers, and his works are not (yet) a part of the basic orchestral repertoire. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean one shouldn't seek him out and appreciate his music for the moment. It is highly accessible and easily enjoyed, especially when it's as well played as it is here.

Naxos made the recording at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, in May of 2010, capturing a big, splashy sound that does justice to the music. There is an ample dynamic range, strong impact, good clarity, and a fine sense of air around the instruments to satisfy most discerning listeners. Then, too, a fairly wide stereo spread and a realistic illusion of stage depth add to the recording's verisimilitude. Highs ring out with sparkle, clearly and effortlessly, and the bass makes a statement when necessary. The violin featured so prominently throughout the selections never overpowers the orchestra or vice versa, the audio engineers nicely balancing it against the other instruments. This is entertaining, largely playful light music served up in equally pleasing sound.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa