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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael Symphony in C minor. Op 27 (1905-06) [57:34]
Iša KREJČI (1904-1968)
Serenata für Orchester (1950) [16:49]
Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden/Karel Ančerl
rec. 19 May 1967, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden. ADD
SWR CLASSIC SWR19055CD [74:54]

Let’s not beat about the bush: for lovers of Czech music in general and for admirers of the conductor Karel Ančerl in particular, this is a release of the utmost importance. Ančerl left an extensive commercial discography, primarily made with Supraphon, but he never recorded Suk’s Asrael Symphony. Furthermore, though some labels such as Tahra have issued valuable recordings of Ančerl concert performances, I’m not aware that any such issue has included Suk’s great tragic symphony. According to the useful booklet essay by Christoph Schlüren, a live recording of the work by Ančerl and the Cleveland Orchestra is in circulation. That, I imagine, will be one of the pair of performances he gave in October 1971 listed on the Karel Ančerl website. How I should love to hear Ančerl at the helm of Szell’s virtuoso orchestra in this great work! In saying that, however, I am in no way implicitly decrying the efforts of the Südwestfunk-Orchester who, as we shall see, rise to the occasion magnificently in this present recording. It’s something of a mystery that Supraphon didn’t invite Karel Ančerl to record this great Czech symphony, especially since he performed it with the Czech Philharmonic in the 1960s when he was setting down a lot of repertoire with them for the Czech label. However, this studio-made German recording fills the gap in some style.

This is a symphony steeped in deeply-felt bereavement. Suk originally planned it as a tribute to his father-in-law, Dvořák, who died in 1904. He gave the work its title after the Angel who, in Muslim mythology, guides the souls of the dead. Dvořák‘s passing saddened Suk greatly but an even greater sorrow awaited him. He had completed the first three movements and begun work on the fourth when in July 1905 his wife, Otilie, Dvořák’s daughter, died suddenly. She was just 27 years old and she and Suk had been married only since 1898. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Suk fell ill after this second bereavement. Once he had recovered and was able to face resuming the composition of his symphony Suk penned a new slow movement in memory of his wife and also abandoned his idea of a set of variations in tribute to Dvořák as the finale and composed a last movement cast in a very different hue. He finished the symphony in 1906. In his notes, Christoph Schlüren makes this suggestion: “If we wish to understand the ensuing leap in quality, with which Suk overcame the most difficult crisis in his life, we should perhaps occasionally listen to the last two movements separately.” That’s a most interesting thought, which had never occurred to me. I’ll admit I haven’t followed his advice on any of the occasions I’ve listened to this Ančerl performance – and there’s a good reason for that – but Mr Schlüren certainly made me listen in a rather different fashion to those last two movements. The reason why I’ve not taken up his idea - so far - is that in this account of the symphony Karel Ančerl leads the listener through the symphony so compellingly that one doesn’t want to break the thread.

Right from the start of the first movement, Andante sostenuto, one is conscious of deep feeling in the string playing – and from other sections of the orchestra as they join the fray. At 1:56, as the Death motif is sounded, there’s huge weight of string tone. Even at this early stage in the symphony one has the sense that the orchestra are collectively on the edge of their seats. Every time I’ve played this disc I’ve been struck forcibly by the amazing intensity with which the violins play between 4:41 and 6:25 as their anguished threnody soars above the rest of the orchestra. As the tempo picks up there’s virile strength and palpable tension in the music making. Ančerl drives the music forward vehemently until a massive climax is attained (9:23). When the movement reaches its final, extended climax (from 12:24) there’s genuine anguish to be heard; hereabouts, the commitment, power and focus of the orchestra is terrific.

The outer sections of the Andante, which follows without a break, sound like a dreamscape. It’s not a peaceful dream, though, by any means: relatively speaking, the music is calmer than what we have experienced in the huge first movement but the calm is very uneasy. The middle of the movement (from 2:05) has the character of a funeral march and here Ančerl exerts a firm grip. The movement segues into the Vivace third movement. I suppose you could call this a scherzo – the term is used in the notes – but there’s nothing jocular or light-hearted about the music. The symphony as a whole puts me in mind of Mahler – at least in spirit - and nowhere more so than in this fantastical movement. Indeed, here I hear definite premonitions of the Mahler of the Ninth and Tenth symphonies. Ančerl was a fine exponent of some of Mahler’s music, including the Ninth, of which he made a fine recording with the Czech Philharmonic in 1966 (Supraphon SU 393-2 011). Between 4:49 and 9:09 in Suk’s third movement the mood changes completely to one of intense longing. In this section there’s melancholy and tenderness, leading eventually to ardour. Surely here Suk was lamenting in an intensely lyrical fashion the loss of Dvořák, his mentor and father-in-law. Ančerl conducts this section with real eloquence. When the fantastical swift music reappears he drives things forward, bringing the movement to a darkly dramatic, turbulent conclusion.

From here on we are hearing music in which Suk mourned also his beloved wife. It’s no surprise, then, that the opening measures of the Adagio are suffused with yearning intensity. This movement is a great outpouring of regret for lost love. Ančerl brings out all the passion in the music and his orchestra responds superbly. This is conducting – and music – that powerfully draws the listener in. The Adagio e maestoso finale opens with arresting power. The tenor of this movement is dramatic – even the short fugal episode (from 5:08) serves a dramatic purpose. Ančerl drives the music forward thrillingly and with great intensity. Eventually, all energy spent, the coda is reached (9:15) and the chorale-like major-key transformation of the Death theme suggests that perhaps Suk has reached acceptance – of a sort. The mainly subdued coda is moving, and all the more so given the often-scalding intensity of the music we have heard in the rest of the symphony.

This is a magnificent performance of Asrael. I’ve heard a number of very fine recordings of this symphony over the years, including the excellent live version by Jiří Bělohlávek from 2008 (review) and the equally memorable live recording made the previous year by Sir Charles Mackerras (review). There are also important, eloquent versions by two of Ančerl’s predecessors as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic: Vaclav Talich’s 1952 Supraphon reading (review) and a Bavarian Radio studio-made performance by Kubelik (Panton 81 1101-2). I wouldn’t want to be without any of those performances but this Ančerl reading now joins the pantheon of the outstanding versions of this great Czech symphony.

The disc also includes a performance of the Serenata by the Czech composer, Iša Krejči. I must admit that I had not previously heard this work or, indeed, so far as I can recall, any music by this composer. This is an attractive short work in what Christoph Schlüren aptly refers to as “Bohemian neoclassicism”. It has three short movements: AllegroAndante quasi AllegrettoPresto. The first is light-footed and good humoured. There’s plenty of energy in both music and performance and the orchestra offers pin-point playing. The middle movement is for strings only. It’s delightful and engaging; the playing is refined. Krejči wraps things up with a short finale that is extrovert and perky. The piece couldn’t be more different to Asrael but it offers a good contrast and I’m glad to have discovered it, especially in such a sparkling performance.

That brings me neatly to the achievement of these performances. We learn from the notes that they were set down in one day and the afore-mentioned Karel Ančerl website describes the performances as “live”. I don’t know how much rehearsal time Ančerl was given but two things are worth saying. Firstly, I doubt the orchestra was familiar with either score prior to this, Secondly, it appears that this was the conductor’s first engagement with them – though, unsurprisingly, he was invited back in 1969. To achieve such committed, marvellously played and eloquent performances of unfamiliar repertoire when conductor and orchestra had no prior relationship is a remarkable achievement.

The recording was auditioned recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. We found the sound to be pretty impressive, wearing its five decades lightly. It’s true – and inevitable – that the sound can’t compete with a modern digital recording, not least in terms of the amount of internal retail that can be heard, but even so the sound presents a very realistic aural picture of Ančerl’s interpretations. I got very satisfactory results when listening on my own equipment and I’d venture to suggest that no one buying this disc will be disappointed on sonic grounds. What you will definitely get if you buy this disc is a memorable performance of a great Czech symphony. This an important release and a major addition to the Ančerl discography.

John Quinn

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