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Suk's Asrael Symphony

09-13-2015 | By Stephen Francis Vasta | Issue 81


The digital era's exploration of the repertoire's byways led to a new interest in the music of Josef Suk—not only the son-in-law of Antonín Dvořák, but once a noted composer in his own right. The Asrael Symphony stands as a major score in his output; yet, despite intermittent attempts to promote it, it never seems quite to catch on. (Given my own spotty concertgoing history, it's odd that this should be a score I've actually heard in performance, in Indianapolis in 1995!)

Geoffrey Terry's loving restoration of this November 1968 concert performance from the Royal Festival Hall may not be able to remedy the situation. Solo instruments and groups -- like the rising cello phrases near the start—come up with a remarkable presence and depth. But the sound turns harsh and aggressive on loud sustained chords, at the peaks of brass crescendos, and even on strong tympani attacks. Given the overall quality of the remastering, the problem must inhere in the original source tape, but it's still a problem.

But the piece itself presents some stumbling blocks of its own, even for its natural constituency. It's built on a rather broad scale—just over fifty-nine minutes in this reading—so its structures are ambitious, not immediately intelligible. And, while the music falls easily on the ear, it doesn't offer the sort of folk-based rhythms and modal harmonies we hear in Dvořák and Smetana. The music doesn't even sound particularly Czech: it has a generalized cosmopolitan polish, flavoured by all manner of echoes and foreshadowings. The aspiring climax at 4:50 in the opening Andante sostenuto suggests Scriabin, of all people; the harmonic and rhythmic hesitancy of the Andante point towards the French Impressionists. The French also invade the Vivace, but here it's the post-Wagnerians, in the searching, quiet section at 4.12, and the rich, throbbing climax at 6.03.

Jiŕí Waldhans, who has a good feeling for the score's singing line and contrasts of texture, might well have been the man to make the piece work. A short-winded, segmented second theme gets the first movement exposition "stuck," but the conductor's surging phrasing in the development carries the listener along. The Andante begins eerily and tentatively, opening into vibrant high-string textures at 3.46. Darting, dynamic figures call the Vivace to attention, and it's nicely varied. A waltzy episode at 5.30 has vaguely "Bohemian" contours, contradicted by the quirky tune and harmony.

Unfortunately, endless reiterations of a descending two-note motif stop the eleven-minute Adagio dead in its tracks; the music suddenly opens into an impassioned climax just before the end, too late to save it. The finale recovers somewhat. Slashing accompaniment figures propel the broad themes; quiet woodwind triplets and open textures launch a searching, unsettled episode; and the brass chorale phrases that first appear at 8.45, while quiet, are fervent.

The Brno Philharmonic, perhaps overshadowed in Westerners' minds by the august Czech Philharmonic, proves an equally fine and flexible ensemble. As suggested, the strings make handsome sounds, deep and burnished at the low end, shimmering in the high range. Piquant woodwinds and horn timbres add native color, though the English horn moves a bit stiffly. Tuning is mostly excellent—the trumpets' unison near the start of the Andante brooks some disagreement—and the playing is stylish and expressive throughout. The brass chords at 3.04 of the first movement are impressively buoyant.

The symphony is preceded by the Czechoslovak National Anthem, broadly played. The tempo increase in the coda may disconcert Anglophone listeners, accustomed to anthems that plod along in a steady 3/4 time!

Although I have reservations about the sound quality here, I'm looking forward to hearing other Orchestral Concert CDs releases—particularly those, like this one, from their "Virtual Concert Hall Series," documenting performances of orchestras touring in London. A New World Symphony from these same forces is available, and I found a disc of piano trios among my review backlog. Those interested in exploring further can check out either of two websites, occds.org or orchestralconcertcds.com.

Orchestral Concert CDs: Suk's Asrael Symphony

ŠKROUP: Czechoslovak National Anthem

SUK: Symphony in C minor, Op. 27 (Asrael)

Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiŕí Waldhans

Orchestral Concert CDs CD 7/2009.  TT: 60.37

Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.