Suk Four Pieces, Op.17

  1. Quasi Ballada
  2. Appassionato
  3. Un poco triste
  4. Burleska

Composer and violinist Josef Suk was one of Dvořák’s favourite pupils and the two men were very close, not least after Suk married Dvořák’s eldest daughter Otilie in 1898. An accomplished performer, Suk played second violin in the Czech Quartet for the majority of his career. Indeed it was while on tour with the Quartet in 1900 that he composed the Four Pieces for Violin & Piano, dedicating the work to his violinist colleague in the quartet, Karel Hoffmann. Unlike many of his countrymen, Suk was less influenced by folk music and instead developed a complex harmonic style in his later work.

The Four pieces all follow a similar, ternary structure (ABA) and alternate their character and energy levels both within and between each movement. The work opens with a repetitive, harmonically ambiguous sequence of chords in the piano over which the violin spins an evocative, probing melody which slowly gathers assurance and direction. The subdued mood is then shattered by a sudden accellerando in the piano, launching the music into a bravura, recitative-like, middle section which explores the limits of both instruments. The final section returns to the opening material before ascending into an ethereal variation of the melody in the violin over tremolo chords in the piano. The Appassionato that follows is much more settled harmonically and instead uses rhythmic surprises, sudden changes in tempo and close interplay between the two instruments to exude energy and vitality. Suk very cleverly keeps the quaver pulse constant while expanding the length of each beat to create the illusion of a slow, tranquil, and beautiful middle section. Another ingenious transition takes the music back to the original metre for a reprise of the opening material.

In the third piece, deliberately ambiguous harmonic progressions in the piano again give the violin complete freedom of expression in its exquisite melody. This time, many of the chords in the piano are marked arpeggiando, literally like a harp, which further softens their influence on the direction and expression of each phrase. Just the mere hint of humour and wit creeps into a middle section marked poco scherzando before the opening material returns with greater passion and force.

The work culminates in a bravura display from both instruments in the Burleska: Continuous semiquaver movement is abruptly silenced before both instruments soar and dive through the register with unexpected changes of dynamic and off-beat accents never allowing the mood to settle. This time the middle section is more deliberately playful and bright with a melody that conveys an almost improvisatory feel. A brief, two-bar Andante ushers in the final reprise and rush to the finish.

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