It’s not long since I gave a warm welcome to a fine live
recording of Suk’s tragic masterpiece, Asrael,
by these same artists (review).
Now they’ve recorded two more of his substantial orchestral
works, this time under studio conditions.
These works were composed either side of Asrael. In fact
the musical portrait of the city of Prague was composed in the
immediate aftermath of the deaths of Dvořák and
Suk’s wife, Otilka. As Graham Melville-Mason suggests
in his note Suk probably found solace in work although Prague
is not the grief-stricken elegy one might have expected him
to compose in those circumstances; that would come withAsrael.
Prague is a fairly straightforward work, certainly by
comparison with its companion on this disc; it looks at the
“history and mystery” of Prague, as Melville-Mason
puts it. It’s built around two musical ideas: the Hussite
chorale, ‘Ye warriors of God’ and a love theme that
Suk lifted from his incidental music to the play Radúz
a Mahulena (1897-8); this latter theme is first heard on
the oboe (track 6, 5:22). This symphonic poem contains colourful,
illustrative music celebrating Prague’s heritage. It’s
not always subtle and the organ - splendidly caught here - and
bells pile in for a somewhat grandiloquent finish (track 9 from
2:16). However, it’s effective, enjoyable and radiates
a definite and genuine - though not jingoistic - national pride.
Bĕlohlávek and his orchestra make a fine case for
it. The recording I’ve had in my collection for many years
comes from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Libor
Pešek, issued in 1993 by Virgin Classics (VC 7 59318 2).
It’s a very good performance and recording but this opulently
recorded Chandos version splits the work into four separate
tracks, which is very helpful; the Virgin version is on a single
A Summer’s Tale was composed after Asrael.
It’s on a huge scale, lasting nearly 55 minutes here -
the 1995 Virgin performance, again from the RLPO and Pešek
(VC 5 45057 2) is scarcely shorter, coming in at 51:56 - and,
like Asrael it is scored for a very large orchestra indeed.
The problem that I have with it - and it’s not dissipated
by this fine Bĕlohlávek performance - is in understanding
what it’s about. In my humble opinion it’s
hard to treat it as a symphonic poem, despite the fact that
Suk gave it that title. There’s no narrative thread running
through it - or if there is it’s not spelt out in Graham
Melville-Mason’s note nor in the more detailed and, frankly,
more helpful note by John Tyrrell that accompanied the Pešek
recording. Furthermore, unless I’m missing something,
which may well be the case, there doesn’t seem to be much
linkage between the five movements, though John Tyrrell points
out that in the finale, ‘Night’, some use is made
of what he describes as the “plodding march” from
the second movement, ‘Midday’. So, I’m not
sure what ‘tale’ it is that Suk is relating here.
I’m rather inclined to think that A Summer’s
Tale is more akin to a suite.
That said, the individual movements each contain a good deal
of very interesting and good music and Suk’s use of his
vast orchestra is consistently resourceful and inventive. Of
particular note in terms of scoring is the central movement,
‘Intermezzo’. Despite the array of orchestral colour
at his disposal Suk pares back the forces to minimal proportions,
scoring this short piece simply for two cors anglais, two harps,
solo violin and viola and a small string group. This movement
apparently depicts two blind musicians who Suk had encountered
on a country road, playing the same dull tune over and over
again. Interestingly, this movement represented yet another
raid on the score for Radúz a Mahulena; this little
piece was an additional number that Suk had composed for a revival
of the play in 1907. It’s interesting music but I don’t
really understand how it fits into the scheme of A Summer’s
Tale other than the fact that it follows another movement
that depicts a heat-hazy scene at midday.
The extended opening movement is entitled ‘Voices of Life
and Consolation’. Graham Melville-Mason comments that
in it Suk “is thought to be emphasising nature’s
healing powers and directing a positive face to the world after
the bleakness of Asrael.” I must say that, to my
ears, the positive aspect takes some time to come through. The
opening is subdued and serious and it took a while before I
detected much in the way of a positive countenance. However
at 4:35 a cor anglais solo ushers in some pastoral wind writing
and thereafter the mood and textures of the music become somewhat
lighter. Indeed, there’s a lot of rather delicate scoring
in the following paragraphs and even when an extended climax
is attained it is powerful but not in a tragic way. That climax
dissolves into a seraphic, slow violin solo over a most delicate
accompaniment. The tranquil last couple of minutes put me slightly
in mind, rather to my surprise, of some of Delius’s nature
music, albeit voiced with a Czech accent.
The fourth movement, ‘In the Power of Phantoms’,
is perhaps the most remarkable movement of all. It’s a
multi-sectional scherzo depicting a spectral, strange world.
You might almost call it a ‘fantastic scherzo’ though
in temperament, style and scoring it’s light years away
from the genial work to which Suk actually gave that title.
It’s an intriguing movement and Suk’s imaginative
and colourful use of the orchestra is quite remarkable at times.
It comes to a strange, subdued conclusion that perhaps prepares
us for the final movement.
This movement, which I hesitate to call a finale, is entitled
‘Night’ and here the music is essentially calm.
There’s also a certain nobility at times and the last
few minutes are tranquil. One senses that perhaps Suk has found
peace, if not complete peace, after the bereavement traumas
that led to Asrael. Eloquently played by the BBC Symphony
Orchestra, it’s a moving and satisfying end to this substantial
I don’t think A Summer’s Tale quite attains
the stature of Asrael. For one thing the work doesn’t
hang together anything like as convincingly. Nor do I think
the musical ideas are quite as memorable. That said, there’s
a good deal of fine music here and Suk handles his material
and his orchestra with great assurance. The performance by Bĕlohlávek
and what is now his former orchestra is very fine indeed and
while the Pešek account is by no means eclipsed Bĕlohlávek’s
reading, excellently played, directed with conviction and recorded
in sumptuous, clear sound deserves the warmest possible welcome.
Like their recent Asrael this pair of performances represents
the partnership between Jiří Bĕlohlávek
and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at its fruitful best. Though
he is no longer their chief conductor they will continue to
work together. Let’s hope that will include more recordings:
it would be marvellous if they were to record more Suk, especially
Ripening and Epilogue.
See also review by Nick
Barnard (September 2012 Recording of the Month)