Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael Symphony Op.27 [62:09]
A Summer’s Tale Op.29 [51:56]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pešek
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, May and December 1990. Stereo. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6285302 [62:09 + 51:56]
Asrael started out as Josef Suk’s homage to his father-in-law Antonín Dvořák, but after the early death of Suk’s wife - who was also Dvořák’s daughter - midway through its composition, went on to become a memorial to both. Considering the connections of both the composer and the work to Dvořák, it is surprising how little it sounds like any of his symphonies. The cor anglais has a prominent role in the first movement, recalling perhaps the Ninth, and the woodwind colouring has a similar Czech flavour. That said, in general this is the music of a composer who has successfully moved out of the shadow of his great predecessor.
And while Dvořák’s music succeeds or fails on the strength of its melodic invention, Suk is far more interested in drama, texture and above all innovative orchestration. He is brave enough regularly to reduce the orchestra to a handful of instruments, and to give solos to the tuba, to the low woodwinds and to all sorts of other unlikely candidates. The percussion section is also put through its paces; there aren’t too many unusual instruments there, but cymbals and timpani make regular and unusual contributions to the louder passages.
The work is usually known as Suk’s 2nd Symphony, and it is interesting that this designation is not given on the packaging for this recording. Generically, it sits somewhere between tone poem - albeit of the most abstract kind - and late-Romantic symphony. In Dvořák, these two creative impulses serve a common cause, but Suk sets them apart, leaving interpreters the job of deciding which direction the music should take.
Libor Pešek is determined to maintain a symphonic coherency, which occasionally means foregoing atmosphere and involvement. There are occasional caesuras between sections that seem all too brief, and the conductor’s restraint is often apparent in the tuttis. On the other hand, the build-ups and other large-scale structural devices are all excellently handled. A work that could otherwise seem incoherent and rambling is presented as a tight symphonic unit.
The Liverpool Philharmonic are on good form, demonstrating that even before the arrival of Vasily Petrenko - the recordings were made in the early 1990s - the orchestra was a force to be reckoned with. Top musical honours go to the woodwinds, who have their work cut out in both symphonies but prove they are well up to the task. The strings and brass are occasionally a little messy, but not to the extent of spoiling the experience.
Asrael proved to be a defining point in Suk’s career, and many of his later orchestral works function as sequels of one sort or another. A Summer’s Tale was the first of these. As the title suggests, it is slightly more cheery, although it is never carefree as such, and there is always a sardonic streak underlying its happier episodes. We are really in tone poem rather than symphony territory here, but Pešek maintains a firm grip on the structure and large-scale progressions. It is a more melodic work than Asrael, and again the woodwind carry the bulk of the melodic material. Generally speaking though, the melodies are pleasant and stylistically coherent, rather than memorable and propulsive as in Dvořák.
This double CD is a re-release of two discs that were originally issued separately. Given the modest price, anybody buying it for the Asrael alone would be churlish to complain about the addition of the lesser known Summer’s Tale. The Asrael was nominated for a Gramophone Award in 1992, and that confidence in the recording’s merits is fully justified, as is the decision to re-release it. The sound on both discs shows its age; neither has the clarity of detail we would expect from a more recent recording. But the woodwind solos are all admirably conveyed, which is a real boon for this music.
A commendable release then, but with the proviso that this takes into account the budget price. Both recordings are also available on Spotify if you don’t want to take the plunge, but I suspect the lower bit-rate online and the adverts between the movements will make purchasing the discs the more attractive option.