Encore: Antonin Rejcha and Josef Suk: music for All Souls

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With the leaves turning and All Souls' Day round the corner, there is a hint of melancholy in this edition of Encore. We look at a requiem mass by a Czech composer who certainly deserves more attention, and at a cycle of piano pieces that Josef Suk composed in memory of his wife Otylka.

Rejcha's Requiem: a work well worth rediscovering

Antonin Rejcha
We start on a rather sombre note, with a requiem mass by Antonin Rejcha. This is only fitting as this week on November 2, Czechs will be observing the "Pamatka zesnulych", or Day of Remembrance for the Dead, during which they clean up the graves of family members and decorate them with fresh flowers and candles. If you are near a graveyard at night, the effect of hundreds of flickering candles glowing in the dark is fairly breathtaking.

Rejcha was a prolific composer, though, with the exception of some pieces for woodwinds, his works are not widely played today. He was born in 1770 - the same year as Beethoven - in Prague. When he was ten, he ran away to live with relatives, who then moved to Bonn. There, he played along with Beethoven in the Hofkapelle orchestra. Beethoven was a violist, and Rejcha played flute and subbed on violin, so the two became friends. He was also had a close friendship with Josef Haydn.

Later on, Rejcha became famous as a teacher and theorist, with a particular expertise in counterpoint, and became a professor at the Paris Conservatory, a very prestigious position then, just as it is today. Many musicians of the time were eager to meet him, including Mendelssohn and Rossini. Chopin wanted to study with him until some of Rejcha's students bad-mouthed him (he was strict) and Chopin decided against it! But Rejcha's pupils included Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and even César Franck. Schumann was familiar with his teachings, as was Smetana. In this way he was hugely influential in the development of European music.

His works are overdue for exploration and re-evaluation, and this requiem, a 1988 recording just reissued by Supraphon is a good place to start. According to the liner notes, many of his works had lain untouched for decades in the French National Library

Josef Suk's moving piano tribute to his wife

Let's turn now to another Supraphon re-release. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the composer Josef Suk's death in 1935, Supraphon has brought out a three CD set of piano works by Suk as recorded in the 1970's by Pavel Stepan.

These include a truly remarkable set of small pieces Suk wrote, which, though exquisite, are rarely played, probably because of their painful subject matter. Suk wrote the cycle of five pieces called "O Mamince", or About Mother, for his young son after Suk's beloved wife, Otilie, or Otylka, died. She was the daughter of his teacher Antonin Dvorak and, as Dvorak himself had died only a year before Otilie, this was a terribly difficult time for Suk.

He had known Otilie since she was 14 years old, so in a way, he had watched her grow up. This is reflected in the first piece in the series called 'When Mother was Still Young'. In this piece, Suk manages to conjure up youthful freshness and overlay it somehow with wistfulness, without ever becoming maudlin.

And in the central part, he quotes his own 'Pisen lasky', or Love Song, which is a great deal better known.

Suk never remarried, but went on to play more than 4000 concerts as second violinist in the Czech Quartet, and became intensely involved in the development of the Prague Conservatory, serving there both as professor and rector.

If you want to stay with the melancholy of autumn, there is another work on this CD that will suit you perfectly, an impressionistic work from Suk's cycle, "Zivotem a Snem", or Things Lived and Dreamt, entitled "Forgotten Graves in the Cemetery at Krecovice", Krecovice being his native village.

This is a gorgeous piece. Czech graveyards are usually full of trees, and when you hear this, you can see these magnificent trees in their autumnal splendor, with dark black trunks and golden leaves. So even if graves are for some reason neglected, they are still surrounded by natural, enduring beauty, and serenaded, as Suk indicates in the middle section of this piece, by birdsong.


CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur