Josef Suk's Asrael, a Symphony in five movements,
is not merely monumental in duration but also in emotional reach. It
forms part of a tetralogy of works of which it is the first. The others
are: A Summer's Tale (1907-9, idyllic but with summer lightning),
Ripening (1912-17, warm and dramatic) and Epilogue (1920-29,
a philosophical summation - for three soloists, chorus and orchestra).
None of the other works are as lengthy as Asrael. All should
be heard but the most potent charge is to be found in Asrael.
Asrael is a work borne out of tragedy - the
deaths of Dvořák and of Suk’s wife.
I dare to say that it would have been a work of gentler emotional potency
if it had been completed before the death of his young wife. As it is,
Asrael is a laceratingly tragic statement and a revolutionary
Mahlerian stride away from say Brahms' Tragic Overture.
It is dedicated "to the dear memory of Antonín Dvořák and to his
daughter, my wife, Otilie".
There are various fine interpretations in circulation.
Staunch champions for the symphony must get Talich's pioneering mono
recording from 1950. You will find that on Supraphon. More accessible
is Pesek's Liverpool version on Virgin and also on HMV Classics (only
available from HMV shops in the UK and from the HMV UK website. Strongest
of all are the Kubelik and Bĕlohlávek versions, the latter
on Chandos; the former on Panton.
This disc does not upset that hierarchy although you
do begin to wonder as things progress - especially in the central movements.
After an overly accented, deliberate first movement, ponderous rather
than portentous, things do warm up. The fantasy-weave of the third movement
(and for that matter of the epilogue in the fifth movement) is luminously
put across in its ghoulish moonlit blending of Delius, Strauss and Prokofiev.
In the fifth movement moments of lassitude are offset by some dazzling
playing. Schneider's is a live recording in front of an audience afflicted
with sporadic though infrequent coughing.
The links between French orchestras and their brethren
in the Czech Republic are of long standing. Fournet, Pedrotti and Baudo
have all recorded extensively with the Czechs. Especially in the woodwind
tone this orchestra sounds authentically Czech (i.e. similar to Talich's
orchestra although Talich projects a more macabre depth than Schneider
and the Montpellier orchestra). The solo violinist, who plays with sweetly
imaginative restraint, is the orchestra's leader, Jacques Prat.
The presentation of this disc is handsome. There is
no jewel case. Instead there is a card-fold cover with a stem for the
CD and an integral six page booklet in French only.
This disc is part of an enterprising series from the
Montpellier orchestra. In the event of difficulty in tracking this down
you can place an order direct with Actes Sud via the orchestra's website.
In the UK the label is distributed by Harmonia Mundi.
The orchestra, founded in 1979, does not sleep on anyone's
conventional laurels. It has an enviable record of presenting rarities
at the annual Radio France/Montpellier Festival. These have included:
Verdi, Giovanna d'Arco, Magnard Bérénice,
Bizet Ivan IV, Wagner Rienzi, Franchetti Christophe
Colomb, Montemezzi L'Amour de Tre Rei, Schoeck Penthesilea,
Bloch Macbeth, Donizetti Exiles of Siberia and Mascagni
Parisina. The last three have been issued by Actes Sud. Other
recordings in the series include the Koechlin Livre du Jongle cycle
and a John Adams orchestral collection.
The present recording is natural with a slight tendency
towards the bass end of the spectrum.
This disc does not unseat Kubelik, Bĕlohlávek
or Talich but admirers of Asrael will find many fresh facets
in this interpretation.