Czech, Please!


By Scott MacClelland

PROMINENT BAY AREA PIANIST Robin Sutherland joined the Roy Malan string quartet on Sunday for “Czech, Please!” The program of rarities by Smetana, Suk and Dvořák brought out a full-house audience at Aptos’ Christ Lutheran Church in an homage to local talent that deserves to be the envy of small town classical fans across the nation.

The show opened with the second of the two movements from Smetana’s Z domoviny (“From the Homeland”)—which Sutherland insisted on calling by its German equivalent “Aus der Heimat”—for piano and violin. From 1880, this was a kind of chamber follow-on to the well-known Má vlast set of nationalistic symphonic poems. Like them, this six-minute piece was flavored with Bohemian yearning.

Representing Josef Suk, Dvořák’s pupil and son-in-law, were the Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op1, of 1898 and Meditation on the Czech Hymn “St Wenceslas” for string quartet of 1914. In the quartet, and with the long stick holding open the piano lid, Sutherland gave Malan, violist Polly Malan and cellist Stephen Harrison an unbalanced challenge that became its own distraction and also negatively impacted string intonation. (String players need to be able to hear their own notes if they hope to play them in tune.)

The story goes that Dvořák pressed Suk to write the piece and, frankly, it sounded over the top in both the opening Allegro appassionato and the second movement Adagio. Then came the final Allegro con fuoco (“…with fire”) that achieved both a better balance among the ensemble and within its own skin, while also making the clearest allusion to Bohemian folk music.

Then Malan’s quartet, now with violinist Susan Freier Harrison, assembled for the old hymn, a setting—and not the only one in the repertoire by that title—that grew out of the Hapsburg control of Bohemia which, until the end of World War I, required the Austrian anthem to start all concerts. Suk’s intention was to restore a sense of identify among Bohemians in that circumstance and, over its seven-minute performance, rose from a soft utterance to a stormy crescendo. The hymn melody itself does not stand in bold definition, like several of Bach’s chorale tunes, but would have been instantly recognized by those for whom it was intended.

Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E Minor “Dumky” took the concert’s second half and Sutherland, despite the long stick, now showed that he could keep his part in good balance with Malan’s violin and Harrison’s cello. This was especially welcome in the soft Poco adagio and the Andante of the first movement. (The dumka is a dance known for its changing moods, from slow circumspection to boisterous footwork. The first movement here was actually stitched together from three dumky.) It was followed by three more dumky discretely played and, obviously, was the crowd favorite.

Next in the Santa Cruz Chamber Players series, in late February, is a program of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms titled “Arc of Romanticism.”

Photo: Malan, Sutherland & Harrison at the Telluride Festival