Summer heat – Josef Suk’s A Summer’s Tale

by Ben Hogwood

As you will no doubt be aware, this week has seen record breaking temperatures in the UK, which has inspired something of a hot weather classical music sequence.

After works from Debussy and the Danish composer Poul Ruders, I have been reminded of this substantial orchestral piece A Summer’s Tale, by the Czech composer Josef Suk.

Suk, the son-in-law of Antonin Dvořák, has been given greater appreciation in the last few decades for an orchestral output notable for its descriptive and emotional powers. Perhaps his best known work is the tragic symphony Asrael, mourning the loss of both his wife and father-in-law. Operating on a very large scale (lasting 70 minutes in most performances) it is an incredibly powerful work of Mahlerian dimensions. A Summer’s Tale is the work that builds on the hope offered by the end of Asrael, becoming a positive celebration of our sunniest season.

Certainly the first movement, Voices of life and consolation, becomes a heady exultation with full orchestra, a true celebration of nature. The small scale third movement, Blind Musicians, is an account of the composer’s encounter with a small-scale band, playing repetitive folk music – and he sets it for smaller orchestral forces here. Meanwhile the fourth movement, In the Power of Phantoms, is a joyous and almost riotous affirmation. For the fifth movement, Night, Suk employs a sultry nocturne, the music finding rest from the sun but also exploring the richness of the lower strings in a surging chorale episode.

You cab listen to A Summer’s Tale below in a particularly fine version from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras:

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