RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael Symphony in C minor, op. 27 (1905-06) [60:36]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1939-40, rev. 1940) [20:17]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. live, 1 June 2008, Smetana Hall of the Municipal House, Prague. DDD
SUPRAPHON SU 4095-2 [61:50 + 21:23]
The release of this pair of CDs is timely. As I write, The BBC Promenade Concerts are about to begin and when they finish Jiří Bělohlávek will step down as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a post he has held since 2006. He is to return home for a second spell as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and he will be succeeded as the BBCSO’s Chief Conductor by Sakari Oramo in 2013. Happily, I believe that he will continue to work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
These CDs preserve a concert that Bělohlávek and the orchestra gave as part of the 63rd Prague Spring International Music Festival in 2008. Although the Britten piece occupies the second disc I strongly suspect that the Suk symphony was played in the second half of the concert. That would seem the more logical ordering to me and it may well be confirmed by the applause - over a minute’s worth in each case - that follows each piece; it’s warm but respectful after the Britten but vociferous after the Suk. Incidentally, the audience is otherwise commendably quiet, so far as I could tell. The pairing of these two works is not, I admit, one that would have occurred to me but in fact they work very well together as a programme.
The Britten receives a fine performance. The doom-laden opening, with its pounding drums, augurs well and you can tell that Bělohlávek has established a firm grip on the music from the outset. In a broadly-paced reading of the first movement, ‘Lacrymosa’, he and his orchestra invest the music with menace and power - the BBCSO brass are especially menacing. The darting, spitting, flickering writing of ‘Dies Irae’ is brought off very well; the playing combines malevolence and virtuosity. Finally, ‘Requiem aeternam’ brings some solace. Bělohlávek’s fine reading of this movement is capped by an ardent climax (from 3:34), tailing off into the calm acceptance of the closing pages. This performance is a considerable success.
Though the performance of Sinfonia da Requiem is a fine one, Bělohlávek’s account of Asrael is finer still. He has recorded it before; there’s a 1991 recording on Chandos, made under studio conditions, I think, with the Czech Philharmonic (review). I’ve not heard that version. Among the recordings that I have heard, I would give pride of place to the superb account by the Czech Philharmonic and Sir Charles Mackerras (review), taken from concerts in Prague, and the equally fine Bavarian Radio studio-made performance by Kubelik (Panton 81 1101-2) if you can still find it. The 1990 Virgin Classics recording by Libor Pešek and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra should not be underestimated either; this recording was my way into the piece many years ago. And then, of course, there’s the classic studio version by the great Vaclav Talich, which all who love this symphony will want in their collections (review), but the mono recording is now sixty years old. However, this new Asrael should make strong claims on the attentions of collectors.
It’s a symphony steeped in deeply felt bereavement; little wonder that Suk entitled the workAsrael after the Angel who, in Muslim mythology, guides the souls of the dead. It was planned originally as a five-movement tribute to his father-in-law, Dvořák, whose death in 1904 affected him deeply. The first three movements had been written and a start made on the slow movement when Suk was afflicted by an even greater blow. In July 1905 his wife, Otilie (Otlyka), Dvořák’s daughter, died suddenly. She was just 27 years old and she and Suk had been married only since 1898. Once he was able to face resuming the composition of his symphony Suk penned a new slow movement in memory of his wife and also abandoned his idea of a set of variations in tribute to Dvořák as the finale and composed a last movement cast in a very different hue. The resulting symphony, completed in 1906, is a magnificent and substantial creation, almost Mahlerian in its reach and depth of feeling.
It is only comparatively recently that the work has been heard with any frequency in the UK. Two conductors led the way: Libor Pešek played and recorded it during his time in Liverpool and Simon Rattle gave it during his time with the CBSO - I recall attending a fine performance by him in Cheltenham: I wonder if he will ever return to the score; I wish he would. Even so, concert performances in the UK remain few and far between and it would not surprise me if that were not also the case in countries other than the former Czechoslovakia. Happily, the work has been much better represented on CD in the last couple of decades.
Bělohlávek leads a very intense performance. From the outset the BBCSO projects the music strongly and eloquently. The music of the first movement is steeped in deep feeling and loss and this comes out very much in the performance. The powerful climaxes, such as the one beginning at 10:20 are delivered magnificently and the recording engineers report them in excellent sound that has real presence. However, there’s a great deal of delicate writing as well for the strings and woodwind and this is put across just as impressively. The dreadful final climax (from 13:29) is tremendously potent, the bass drum pounding away beneath the rest of the mighty orchestral sound.
The second movement is at times a spectral funeral march and it’s surely no accident that there are echoes of Dvořák’s Requiem. The third movement is a substantial scherzo. As it says of this movement in the English translation of the notes accompanying Talich’s recording “The feverish dream is full of shades, spectres and cunningness”. That’s rather well put. Bělohlávek gets his orchestra to play this music vividly and with a real sense of fantasy. The slower central section is expansively done and when the scherzo material returns the turbulent closing pages sound especially effective.
The second part of the symphony moves from mourning Dvořák to eulogizing Suk’s beloved young wife. The Adagio is entitled ‘To Otylka’ and it’s a moving but not overwrought elegy. Here Bělohlávek’s interpretation is noble and eloquent, displaying great empathy for Suk’s music. The response of the BBC orchestra is very fine indeed. The finale, another Adagio, opens dramatically with rhetorical timpani strokes. What follows is a complex and often passionate movement but eventually (at 9:27), some fifty-five minutes after the symphony began, the music at last achieves major key warmth and some consolation. It’s a gently moving conclusion to this very powerful symphony. Suk wrote to a friend “Do you know what I had to go through before I got to that final C major? No, it’s not a work of pain - but a work of superhuman energy.”
As I indicated near the start of this review, the performance of Asrael is applauded vociferously by the audience. I’m not surprised for the reading is a gripping one, full of concentration and tension. Moreover, the BBCSO’s playing is splendid. This is a performance that, like the recordings by Kubelik, Mackerras, Pešek and Talich shows the work’s immense stature. Both the performances on this set are a fine souvenir of the fruitful partnership between Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Supraphon sound is very good indeed. Rob Cowan’s notes are a bit disappointing. Understandably, given the timing of this release, he devotes quite a bit of space to discussing Bělohlávek’s work at the BBC but I’d have liked a bit more comment on the two pieces of music, especially since Mr. Cowan is a well-known and knowledgeable enthusiast for Czech music.
Bělohlávek and the orchestra played the Suk in London a few days before the concert preserved here and that performance was reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Evan Dickerson.
A fine souvenir of the fruitful partnership between Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.