Josef Suk was one of the world's great violinists, perhaps the supreme lyricist among the major virtuosos of the 20th century, and one of the kindest and most considerate of men. He was also a member of one of music's major dynasties: his great-grandfather was Antoní* Dvorák and his grandfather another composer and violinist, also called Josef Suk.
For all the subtle strength of his performances Suk was one of those musicians who saw himself as the servant of the composer: in an age where flashy showmanship was becoming increasingly expected of performers, Suk's enormous technique was always concerned to illuminate the inner meaning of the music. His stature helped: he was a big man, well over six feet in height, with big, powerful hands, and his physical strength combined with his musical honesty to give his interpretations a refreshing virility.
Suk was born in Prague in 8 August 1929, the third Josef in a row: hisgrandfather (1874–1935), Dvorák's favourite student and later second violin of the world-renowned Czech Quartet, had married Otilie, Dvorák's only daughter, in 1898 and their only son was also named Josef (1901–1951). Josef Suk II was to become an engineer but painted and composed as an amateur and, although Josef Suk III felt that the family precedents ruled out a career as a composer, he too wrote music, and a recent CD on the Czech independent label Lotos presented him playing music by all three generations of Josef Suk.
Famous forebears can sometimes be a burden but although having a composer of the stature of Dvorák as a great-grandfather (or the creator of the mighty Asrael Symphony as a grandfather) may have curbed Suk's creative ambitions, he was enormously proud of his heritage. He had only a vague recollection of his grandfather, having been but five when he died, but played an important part in recording his works, most recently with a CD of Suk and Dvorák chamber music from Supraphon.
The tragedy visited on his father with Otilie Dvoráková's early death in 1905 was repeated when Suk was eight and his own mother died. But a quasi-parental influence entered Suk's life when the violinist Jaroslav Kocián (1883–1950) recognised the young boy's talent and took him under his wing; they enjoyed a teacher-pupil relationship until Kocián's death. Kociá* was best known for the purity of his Bach, and the uncluttered elegance required for Bach was to prove the guiding principle of Suk's own playing. Suk studied also at the Prague Conservatoire until 1951 and then spent two more years at the Prague Academy. In 1948 he had appeared in Paris and Brussels as part of a cultural exchange programme, but it was a concert in Prague in 1954 that revealed him as a musician of unusual importance.
Still, although he had appeared as a prodigy at the age of 11, Suk's career initially developed in collaboration with other musicians rather than as a virtuoso soloist: he was first violin of the Prague Quartet in 1951–52 and leader of the orchestra of the National Theatre in Prague from 1953-55. In 1952 he founded the Suk Trio (the name paying honour to his grandfather, not himself), playing chiefly with the pianist Jan Panenka and cellist Josef Chuchro; there were one or two changes of personnel over the years, with Suk remaining the constant element in the group. It was to become one of the most celebrated ensembles in music, giving its last concert in 1990. An indication of its stature is that it was the Suk Trio that was invited by Deutsche Grammophon to make the label's first stereo recording, of Dvorák's Dumky Trio.
Other chamber-music partners included the pianist Julius Katchen and cellist Janos Starker: their trio lasted only two years before Katchen's early death in 1969 brought it to a premature end, but it produced superb recordings of the Brahms trios, and Suk's and Katchen's accounts of the three Brahms violin sonatas are rightly acclaimed as classics of the recorded repertoire.
Suk wasn't confined to Romantic composers: his recording of the six Bach solo sonatas and partitas for HMV in 1970 is another discographical milestone; one reviewer wrote of the "organic clarity" of his playing. In 1963 he founded a duo with the harpsichordist Zuzana Ružicková, and they made several recordings of Bach and Handel together – one of them featuring Suk's superb viola-playing: he was an exceptionally fine violist, moving between that instrument and the violin with ease. In 1974 he added a third activity to his music-making when he founded the Suk Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble of 12 strings, remaining its conductor until 2000.
Suk's reputation had begun to percolate abroad before he made his first international tour, in 1959, as soloist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. His UK debut came in 1964, with a performance of the Dvorák Violin Concerto at the Proms on 27 August, with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was immediately invited back and on 9 September the next year he joined the same forces in Beethoven's Violin Concerto, a performance described on its 2009 release on CD (on the BBC Legends label, together with the 1964 Dvorák) as one which "always allows the music to breathe and express itself with dignity and with meaningful communication". Inexplicably, he was never to return to the Proms but did become a regular visitor to London, particularly for concerts of chamber music. He was an occasional guest in the US, too, playing especially for the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center in New York.
At home he was regarded as a national treasure, his standing formally recognised in 1999 when President Havel bestowed on him the nation's highest award for merit. Ten years later, on his 80th birthday, he received a further decoration, from President Klaus. Although he formally retired in 2004, he continued to teach, and would make concert appearances now and then when he thought it might be of benefit to his students. He fulfilled a number of honorary posts, chairing the artistic committee of the Prague Spring Festival, for example, and the Josef Suk Chamber Music Competition was underway in Prague at the time of his death. He was also showered by awards by the recording industry, one of them a Platinum Disc from Supraphon in 1999 for the sale of 1,110,000 units. He won the Grand Prix du Disque no fewer than six times.
He played a number of important violins over the course of his career, chiefly a Stradivari called the "Libon", dating from 1729, a Guarneri del Gesù (the "Prince of Orange" from 1744) and a Giovanni Guadagnini (the "Ex Vieuxtemps" of 1758).
I had the enormous privilege of making his last recording, a CD of 30 transcriptions of Dvorák songs for violin and/or viola that I suggested he undertake for my label, Toccata Classics; he was so taken with the idea that he had Dvorák's own viola restored for the recording sessions. He was a month past his 80th birthday when we made the disc, with Vladimir Ashkenazy, in Prague in September 2009. His artistry was undiminished, his playing style the expressive parlando that is now out of fashion but which treats the instrument as an extension of the human voice. He was quiet, methodical and easy-going in the sessions, focussed on the job in hand but with nothing of the Grand Artist about him.
For him to record for a small, struggling independent CD label was an act of immense generosity, but paradoxically, and typical of his personal modesty, he was grateful to me for offering a platform which linked him once again with his famous great-grandfather: he had prostate cancer and was glad that what might be his last visit to the studios allowed him once again to embrace his glorious heritage. He maintained an active interest in the project, also preparing the transcriptions for publication – I received his foreword only weeks ago – and Toccata Press will bring the first set out in the autumn.
The warmth of Suk's violin tone was indicative of the warmth of the man; like his unflashy playing, his personal communication was concerned with the direct expression of the truth. That review of the Bach partitas and sonatas found that, in contrast to some other players, "Suk avoids rubato extremes and agogic affectations. He creates tension and release through subtleties of dynamic shading and accentuation, while his phrasing blooms with harmonic awareness". That subtle simplicity was Josef Suk himself, and with his passing an entire generation of music-making comes to a close.
Josef Suk, violinist, violist, conductor and teacher: born Prague 8 August 1929; married Marie Poláková; died Prague 6 July 2011