Eminent violinist from a great Czech musical family
The Czech violinist Josef Suk, who has died aged 81 of cancer, belonged to one of the great musical families: his great-grandfather was the composer Antonín Dvorak, and his grandfather was his namesake, the composer and violinist Josef Suk.
Born in Prague, as a child Suk junior enjoyed a close relationship with his grandfather, best remembered for his Serenade for Strings and Asrael Symphony, spending many holidays with him, and receiving regular postcards from his tours with the Bohemian Quartet – Suk senior played second violin in this legendary group. But in spite of this possibly daunting legacy, the young man was never in the shadow of his eminent forebears, and developed a career in his own right as one of the leading violin soloists of the last century.
His repertoire championed his Czech – and family – inheritance, and he played in ensembles with many of his fellow countrymen, not only in his well-maintained relationship with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, but in smaller groups, leading the Prague Quartet in the early 1950s, or in his own Suk Trio, with Milos Sadlo and later Josef Chuchro as cellist, and Jan Panenka as pianist. He also played regularly with the pianists Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich and Julius Katchen, and in a trio with Katchen and the cellist Janos Starker.
As a young child, Suk lived in the Bohemian village of Krecovice, where his grandfather had been born; indeed, it was his grandfather who gave the boy his first violin, which he started to play at the age of six – although Suk senior died soon afterwards and never heard him play. Initially he received lessons from his father, an engineer also named Josef, said to have been a hugely talented amateur violinist and pianist (Suk never knew why his father had not become a professional performer), but early talent dictated another approach, so the child went to the Prague Conservatory to learn with Jaroslav Kocián. Kocián would always introduce Suk as Dvorak's great-grandson and Josef Suk's grandson, with the implication that great things were expected of this talented lineage.
He first appeared in public at the age of 11, but then withdrew until he reached his late teens, all the time remaining a pupil of Kocián. He used to keep Kocián's death mask in his sitting room, below an enlarged motif from the violin solo from the incidental music to Julius Zeyer's play Radúz and Mahulena by his grandfather.
Suk began his performing life in chamber music, with the eminent Prague Quartet, where his fellow members were already seasoned professionals. He then went on to launch the Suk Trio, which focused particularly on Czech repertoire – Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana, Suk and Bohuslav Martinu. But despite a deep love of chamber music, particularly the quartet literature, Suk wanted to perform as a soloist.
Czechoslovakia's communist government, in full control from 1948, made life difficult for musicians and other artists wishing to work abroad. Realising that figures of Suk's calibre could bring in foreign currency, the regime allowed him to go on foreign tours, notably with the Czech Philharmonic, and in recognition of his calibre gave him an official post as soloist with the orchestra in 1961.
He made his Promenade Concerts debut in London in 1964, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent, in concertos by Mozart, No 3 in G major, and Dvorak. His international reputation by now secure, demand for his playing was high both within and outside the Eastern bloc, and the following year he returned to the Proms and the same accompanists in the Beethoven concerto, which he later recorded with the New Philharmonia and Adrian Boult.
Suk always said that he had never been truly tempted to leave his country for a materially better and less oppressed life elsewhere, mostly for reasons of his family and the strong Czech tradition. In the US at the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Suk and his wife Marie had already spotted a house in San Francisco which they had thought of buying. But he was besieged by letters from Czech concertgoers begging him to stay at home, and, responding to this appeal from people quite unknown to him, remained a Czech citizen. Suk knew also that had he left his country, then the music of his grandfather would have gradually disappeared from concert programmes.
His repertoire embraced his beloved Czech composers, but extended much further. His large output of recordings ranged from the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas of JS Bach to the two concertos by Belá Bartók and that by Alban Berg.
Suk's playing was not confined to the violin; like his great-grandfather Dvorak, Suk was an accomplished viola player, joining the violinist Salvatore Accardo in the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, and playing the viola in the string quintets by Mozart and Dvorak with the Smetana Quartet. He recorded the Sinfonia Concertante, playing both solo parts himself, as well as Berlioz's Harold in Italy as a viola soloist, and gave recitals with the first half on the violin and the second on the viola.
Suk was appreciated for the purity of his tone, his self-effacing musicianship – displaying no technical bravado unless it served the music – and an astonishing command of the instrument. Though retired in recent years, he made a Dvorak recording on the violin and viola with the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, Songs My Great-Grandfather Taught Me, containing 30 of his own transcriptions of vocal works and released in 2010. He is survived by Marie, whom he married in 1951.
• Josef Suk, violin and viola soloist, born 8 August 1929; died 6 July 2011
• Hear Josef Suk in clips from Songs My Great-Grandfather Taught Me
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