Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael - Symphony in C minor, Op. 27 (1905) [60:01]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. live, Rudolfinum, Prague, 5-6 April 2007.
SUPRAPHON SU 4043-2 [60:01]

I was always intrigued by the potential of Suk conducted by Mackerras (1925-2010). There were fewer discs in which this conductor championed Suk than he did Janacek or Dvorak. The present one, issued posthumously, was presumably not intended. We should not forget a number of Suk discs he made by design, as it were: A Summer's Tale/ and Fantastic Scherzo (Decca 4666 443-2) and Fantasy (Decca 460 316-2) each with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

As for this project it seems to have been touched with gold from the outset. There are a few minor imprecisions of ensemble but these are the usual artefacts of a live concert event. In fact Mackerras’s Asrael – or this one - is revelatory. He makes it sound quite voluptuously Straussian for such a gaunt work especially in the first movement. He is great at the ambitious sweep and gusty mercurial moods borne along by tempo changes.

It's a work that has been extensively recorded. Suffice to say that of all the many great recordings, the ones I would direct you to hear are the Talich mono and this one by Mackerras. My colleague Brian Wilson mentions that the work has never quite taken hold of him (my words). This Mackerras is the one I would ask him to try. These things are so subjective but Mackerras and Supraphon have done a superb job. This conductor has a very satisfying grip on the Mahlerian gait and breath-control of the piece. He does magnificent things with it as listening to the profoundly moving Adagio shows. This movement even reminded at times of the Korngold symphony from some forty years later. Applause closes the disc.

For all that this is a concert event the stereo spatial effects are very well arrived at – listen to the eldritch almost Mendelssohnian flight of the Vivace.

The recording is unglamorous but satisfying. This is unlike the analogue Decca recordings I had just been experiencing when listening to Ansermet’s legacy Debussy on Newton. Certainly, if you listen to the portentous drums in the finale, there is no softening of life's buffets and nor any sweetening of its desperate tragedy. If this had been written after the Great War we would hardly have been surprised. It could easily serve as a requiem symphony for the trodden down generations.

The notes are by Petr Kadlec who clearly identifies with Mackerras and his Czech legacy. It's a very poignant and informative note.

Mackerras delivers a profoundly moving and completely engaging Asrael superbly recorded - the best modern version.

Rob Barnett

The best modern version.