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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael - Symphony in C minor op. 27 (1906) [62:09]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, April 2008. DSD.
ONDINE ODE1132-5 [61:32]
Experience Classicsonline

Ashkenazy here essays one of the great monuments of turn of the century late-romanticism and does so with poignant success.
 
Suk's five-movement Asrael Symphony is shot through with tragedy. First: the death of Dvořák, his father-in-law; then a year or so later, the death of Dvořák's daughter, Suk's young wife, Otylka.
 
The iconic recording of Asrael is that made by Talich in mono in the early 1950s. That's the version by which I came to know the work via a pensioned-off reel-to-reel Grundig on which I had taken down a then very rare broadcast in the early 1970s off BBC Radio 3.  That recording from Supraphon is still available - now in the Talich Gold series – and is very special. Talich puts the music across most vividly. It has vulnerable tenderness, eerie tension and a thundering account of inimical fate. The music is core Suk - he has a special bittersweet sound - somewhere subtly other - a supernatural world torn between Mahler and Berlioz.
 
Some people cannot stand Asrael and can finding nothing gripping in it. For me it is vital in the repertoire – a work that I heard in concert (1998, Liverpool) courtesy of Libor Pesek and the RLPO and for years before that had played many times on tape and CD. I have tried to keep up with the competing versions ever since and am only sorry to have missed out on the Russian Disk version by Svetlanov and the USSRSO. We must hope that either Regis or Svet or Warner will revive the Svetlanov.
 
Ashkenazy and the Helsinki orchestra give Asrael vitality and pulse. This provides a grip lacking to same degree in the Pesek and Petrenko (CPO). Theirs is a generous and sumptuous recording. It's the finest it has had to date. The performance is one which I have found constantly rewarding for its eldritch phantasms, its magnificence marbled with sorrow, its heroic determination and its winged delivery. Try the grunted and gruff interleave of the rest of the brass benches with the trumpets at the end of the third movement.
 
I reviewed this as a standard CD not as an SACD.
 
The fine notes are by notable Czech music authority Jan Smaczny.
 
The field is not crowded and - historic Talich aside - this stands as the very best of the modern recordings.
 
Rob Barnett
 

 


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