Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Symphony in E major (JSkat 40) (1897-99) [40:18]
Ripening (Zrání) - a symphonic poem (JSkat 70) (1917) [38:02]
New London Chamber Choir; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek
rec. January (Ripening) and April (Symphony) 2010, Watford Colosseum
CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5081 [78:33]

Jirí Belohlávek has wrought quite a repertoire change of direction with his BBC orchestra. Martinu symphonic cycles, and Suk orchestral masterpieces are now de rigeur, and so too visiting Czech soloists.

His attention has now turned to Suk’s early Symphony in E, and to the mature Ripening or Zrání. The Symphony was long dominated in the catalogue by Neumann’s Czech Philharmonic Supraphon recording, which has been superseded by the company’s new release by Tomas Nepotil and the Prague Symphony, which I have not yet heard. But Neumann is still very much in one’s mind, as he took an expansive and intense view of the work and one that contrasts forcefully with this BBC/Belohlávek account.

Indeed Belohlávek’s pacy schema is in many ways different from, but complementary to, Neumann’s. They find different things in this early, Dvorák-influenced work, and highlight different priorities too. For Belohlávek the key is structural integrity and the minimising of occasional flabbiness; for Neumann it was the rich romantic cantilena and measured turbulence of the writing. In this newcomer one finds plenty of brisk unison playing in the first movement, plenty too of arching string melodies (try from 6:30) and verdant Czech wind writing. There’s an especially nice, woody clarinet introduction to the second movement but it sounds too forwardly balanced to me, and thereby misses the slower and more timbrally integrated approach of Neumann, where it is less soloistically balanced and integrates better with the accompanying string passages. One feels in this movement that Belohlávek is trying to accommodate such moments, with the succeeding paragraphs of almost operatic declamation, to make them cohere, and not to fracture, as can happen at slower tempi. I don’t actually feel this happens with Neumann, but it is a danger. The speed-up for the horn/string passages is exciting and so too is the scherzo, with its incisive and compact little dramas, well played and etched by the orchestra. Where I also felt a little bit of over-bright balancing is the piccolo writing in the finale, but Belohlávek certainly binds this movement well, taking the tempo changes in hand, and taking two minutes off Neumann’s timings in this movement alone. Particularly impressive is his unveiling of the Meno mosso e molto largamento section and the drawing out of the chorale-like maestoso conclusion.

Ripening (Zrání) receives another fine reading, wholly recommendable on its own terms. It’s slightly terser than Talich’s famous traversal, but not by very much, but in the final resort perhaps fails to catch the ultimate in sheer verdancy and almost tactile intensity that Talich did, notwithstanding the obvious disparity between recording techniques – Chandos’s SACD sound picture is really excellent. For instance the move to the poco allegro, con moto section (it’s part way into track 2) is well handled, and the brassy climaxes are very well caught, not least the growling lower brass. The bass section distinguishes itself – try around 4:40 into track 4 – and Belohlávek does well here by the subsequent Adagio quasi l’istesso tempo. He even manages, by virtue of his unsentimental directness, to mitigate what is, for me, the work’s Achilles Heel, which is the fugal development section (in track 5). Fortunately the choral contribution, brief though it is, is atmospheric and well balanced. Belohlávek proves just as strong an interpreter of the work as Neumann, whose old Supraphon recording was something of a staple for a time. One thing at which Belohlávek excels Neumann, however – here and in the Symphony – is rhythmic impetus. And the recording is far more up to date.

The Symphony has been recorded by Tomas Nepotil and the Prague Symphony Orchestra, coupled with Dvorák works [Supraphon SU39412]. Ripening has been recorded by the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin under the avid Suk conductor, Kirill Petrenko [with Tale of a Winter`s Evening Op. 9 on CPO 7773642], and by Libor Pešek [4 CD Suk box SU38642, which includes Asrael but not the Symphony in E]. Talich’s premiere recording – part of which we now know to have been conducted by Zdenek Bílek - is on SU38232, coupled with Taras Bulba.

But if you value a cogent pair of readings – brisk but not brusque – then you will find that this latest entrant fits the bill admirably.

Jonathan Woolf

If you value a cogent pair of readings – brisk but not brusque – then you will find that this latest entrant fits the bill admirably.