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Orchestral Concert CDs

Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael Symphony (1906) [58:38]
Czech National Anthem [1:30]
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Waldhans
rec. 13 November 1968, Royal Festival Hall, London
Experience Classicsonline

Almost three months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the Brno Philharmonic was touring the West. The Státní Filharmonie Brno had first toured abroad in 1956, the year in which it arose from the merger of the city’s Radio Orchestra and the Brno Region Symphony Orchestra. The great Břetislav Bakala was the first conductor of the newly constituted orchestra but he died a couple of years later, and Jaroslav Vogel took over for a few years before Jiří Waldhans assumed directorship from 1962 until 1978. He was to die in 1995. 

This performance is as much a tribute to him as to the orchestra, though its greatest tribute is owed to the composer of a work that must have been largely unknown to British audiences when the Brno orchestra brought it to London on 13 November 1968. Its sorrowing mien could not have been entirely lost however on the audience, and therein lies a special frisson. 

That then is the background to what is the only recording of Asrael by Moravian forces known to me. It was recorded in the notoriously dry acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall and is presented here for the first time. Let’s say straight off that it’s a splendid, often thrilling performance. The bright sound of the hall, allied to the excellent recorded set up by engineer Geoffrey Terry, has ensured that certain moments register as seldom if ever before. Take the percussion in the first movement which can be heard in searing, fearsome immediacy; one can almost feel the skins’ tremor. The wind statements are finely balanced, with every strand audible, and the Straussian surge of the strings equally so. The Brno brass is on fine form, with their very personal tonal qualities still intact; they don’t drown the strings in the fortes of the opening Andante sostenuto. Throughout Waldhans exercises gripping control. 

He brings out the Mahlerian writing implicit in the score – most particularly in the second movement Andante where the sense of unease, as much as a sense of space, is palpable. The orchestra’s leader takes a fine solo in the central Vivace – note too the eloquent contributions of the other principals, not least the clarinet and viola. Great care has been taken to ensure sectional balance and between sections in the tricky moments of this movement. Dynamics are layered and the reading is full of nuance.  Waldhans keeps the tempo moving in the penultimate movement and brings passion, precision and bright, tight string tone to the corporate playing in the overwhelming finale. 

The great merits of this performance include the fieriness and tensile quality of that central Vivace – which Waldhans takes faster than almost all of his Czech compatriots – along with the wide arching control he exercises from first note to last, and indeed the immediacy of the recording. 

There are a few coughs – but surprisingly few – from the audience. There are also a few tape glitches but they are passing and of no real significance. There are many recordings of Asrael from which to choose. Of them the first ever, the Talich [Supraphon SU 3830-2 212] is a classic, of course. Kubelik’s 1981 performance is, like this Waldhans, live [Panton 81 1101-2] and it is truly wrenching, not least in the awesome expansion of the opening and the powerful but slow Vivace. Neumann’s 1983 reading [Supraphon SU 3864-2 034] earns a central recommendation by virtue of its transparent sense of proportion. Bělohlávek’s reading on Chandos [CHAN 9640] and Pešek’s on EMI 2068 732 are fine; Svetlanov [RDCD 1011] takes standard tempi, perhaps surprisingly. Of the more recent entrants I’ve not heard Flor [BIS SACD 1776] or Ashkenazy [Ondine SACD ODE 11325] but it’s not surprising they were SACD entrants. This is a work that embraces sound. 

This latest entrant takes a worthy and high place in the pantheon of recordings of this masterwork. 

Jonathan Woolf 




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