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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael Symphony, Op. 27 (1905/06) [59.44]
A Summer’s Tale, Op. 29 (1908/09) [49.44]
Anatoly LIADOV (1855-1914)
The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 (1909) [9.15]
Josef SUK
The Ripening, Op. 34 (1912/17) [38.10]
Tale of a Winter’s Evening, Op. 9 (1894, rev. 1926) [14.50]
Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin/Kirill Petrenko
rec. live, 2002-06, Komische Oper Berlin, Germany
CPO 555 009-2 [3 CDs: 59.44 + 59.00 + 53.10]

What a difference an appointment makes. I must admit, avid admirer of Suk's work though I am, I had passed over these recordings on original release considering that performances by an 'unknown' conductor directing one of Berlin's 'lesser' orchestras were hardly likely to displace famed favourites. Now, Kirill Petrenko has been appointed the Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic to succeed Simon Rattle in 2018 and I was curious to hear these discs. In recent years, has a conductor ever been appointed to such a high profile and prestigious position with such a small discography and limited international profile? Perhaps for unknown one should substitute my own personal ignorance; Petrenko was appointed director of the Komische Oper in Berlin in 2002 - the year Rattle took up the reins at the Philharmonic - and moved to Munich in 2013 to become music director of the Bavarian State Opera, one of the world's great companies.

These three performances of major works by Suk were recorded at live concerts in Berlin roughly two years apart between 2002-2006. Worth noting that according to the recording information these appear to be single performances - presumably with some rehearsal patching. CPO follow their standard practice for 'box' sets by simply bringing together the existing discs in their original jewel cases and liners and putting them in a new cardboard sleeve. In this instance a rather austere black one with a picture of Petrenko in full flight. As I have written before, the music of Josef Suk will never become mainstream or popular - unless included in the soundtrack of a major film - but despite the relatively small amount of music he wrote it remains powerfully individual and a delight for those who know it. Which possibly explains why the discs there are tend to be of a high quality. There will be a degree of preference but I cannot think of any disc of Suk's music that I consider poor. His major orchestral scores could be accommodated on fewer than half a dozen reasonably filled discs. Sitting at the heart of his output are the four quasi-autobiographical orchestral scores that while independent also form a mighty arch of profound musical expression. Petrenko gives us the first three of these scores with the last - and least known/recorded - Epilogue missing Best known - a relative term - and most often recorded, is the first; his Second Symphony subtitled Asrael - the angel of death. This work's genesis as the composer's response to the loss of his teacher and father-in-law Antonín Dvořák as well as his wife Otilie is well-known. I do not propose a detailed description of the work here; sufficient to say whenever I return to it, I find myself re-engaged all over again with the power and breadth and sincerity of its expression. Petrenko's performance enters a catalogue which features justly famous versions right back to Talich's pioneering mono version from the early 1950's. The work spans the entire range of human emotions from despairing loss, through vehement anger to an extraordinarily moving sense of acceptance in the closing pages.

Petrenko's interpretation reveals certain characteristics both musically and technically that prove to hold true across all three discs. Firstly, he clearly inspires the orchestra of the Komische Oper to play with remarkable flair, skill and utter commitment. All three of these major works are a test for even the greatest and most virtuosic orchestras. Suk's demanding writing requires both individual virtuosity but allied to a sense of collective flexibility that defines this often neurotic music. For Petrenko the orchestra plays with whiplash precision. Each work features at least one 'scherzo-like' movement. In each instance Petrenko secures playing of remarkable power and precision - a tribute to his conducting technique and the player's belief in his interpretations. Across the four years of this project Petrenko becomes a more nuanced conductor of Suk. In Asrael he secures as passionate and dynamic a performance as I have heard. Where he is less successful is in the passages which need more of a sense of freedom and fantasy - at this stage in his interpretation of these works he is rather too direct and literal. Also, two of the moments of pure musical theatre make less of an impact here than in other versions. In the opening movement the bass drum hurls an apocalyptic rat-a-tat-tat figure against the minor key fanfare/fate motif that dominates the entire work, Libor Pesek with the RLPO find a near-ideal pace and balance for this compelling passage [13:16 on the Pesek recording]. Petrenko is nearly a full minute quicker than Pesek across the entire movement reaches this moment at 12:30 and marches through it with near jauntiness with the bass drum feeling much more like an impatient, "come on now keep up" than the hammering of fate at the door. Likewise in the closing movement, in a far from original but still moving 'twist' the minor key fate motif transforms into a wistful major over arabesquing strings and a degree of tranquillity absent from the piece up until this moment is achieved. For some reason I cannot quite put my finger on this recording does not quite find this sense of quiet resolution - it seems as though Petrenko over interprets a passage that benefits from stillness and simplicity. Indeed, exciting thought this performance is, I feel it is stronger on drama and dynamism than it is on nuance and half-lights - this is a subtler work than the one Petrenko presents. It has to be said again that the playing of this Berlin orchestra is excellent backed up by a very fine recording from the CPO/Deutschlandradio engineers.

Indeed, the quality of the engineering is another ever-present throughout this set. On the first disc there are more audible noises coming from the podium and page-turning and general stages sounds are occasionally present. For those who have an aversion to recordings of concerts there are occasional - but discreet - audience noises too - applause is retained for Asrael but absent for the other works. I like very much the quality of the individual sections of the orchestra here too - clear evidence of the quality of Petrenko's work. The strings are flexible and accurate with excellent unanimity of attack and intonation. The wind soloists are typically Germanic with a full warm tone. Likewise the brass choir who play with a real richness that benefits the chorale-like sections of the work.

The second disc contains A Summer's Tale which continues the emotional journey started in Asrael. As with the symphony this is a work in five contrasting movements. In many ways it is just as extraordinary as Asrael but without the obvious drama of the earlier work - which is probably why it is less well-known. That said the catalogue contains several impressive versions - not least of all the stunning version on Chandos from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek. This deservedly won a Gramophone Orchestral disc of the year award. To quote from my review of that disc; In a speech in 1932 Suk said; “[it is about] finding a soothing balm in nature [after the cruel events that inspired the Asrael Symphony]…. After wild fleeing I find consolation in nature … the exalted jubilation of the first movement, the hymn to the sun in the second, compassion for those who can never see this [the third movement is entitled Blind Musicians], storm and wild longing in the fourth … give way in the final movement to the mystical calm of night”.

Interesting how many of the same qualities/defining features of the first disc are apparent here. Petrenko is direct and incisive (his version runs a good five minutes quicker than Bĕlohlávek) with the fourth movement 'scherzo' In the Power of Illusions a thrillingly virtuosic highlight. That is not to say he cannot conjure poetic playing too - the shortest movement is the third Intermezzo - Blind Musicians where Suk writes imaginatively for harp and a pair of cor anglais. The Berlin players are a delight here. But in direct comparison to Bĕlohlávek - on surely one of his very finest discs - Petrenko is just a tad literal. If this were the only version you were ever to hear I do not think you would be disappointed but if choice there be, why not seek out the best. The disc is completed by a work that makes for a curious bedfellow on CD. It is Anatoly Liadov's very likeable Enchanted Lake. Nine minutes of very pleasant understated Russian tone-painting which does make a striking contrast to the main work; a pastel miniature as opposed to a sprawling canvas in oils perhaps. But no-one will be buying this disc because of the Liadov and I am not sure that I would have let the disc run onto it except for the purposes of this review - a shame that the orchestra did not record/perform another Suk work instead.

The set is completed by The Ripening. I have never seen the definite article used as part of this work's title before. Additionally, the movements are given titles which other recordings have not used - apparently these occur in Karel Šrom's introduction to the score. Here Suk opts for six movements with the finale featuring the addition of an un-credited female wordless chorus - they do not sing the text of the following poem. The liner-note rather pompously chooses not to include the excerpt from Antonín Sova's poem that Suk used to head the score because it might - allegedly - give the listener the wrong idea. Here's an excerpt courtesy of the original Virgin release of the Pesek/RLPO performance: "And I listen, and I look into the brightness. In the cosmos there cluster thousands of stars - and I fathom the depths into which time has passed. In that calm lies redemption. In the ripening, in the full final ripening, let it come, oh sweet night after that day - ". To me it seems that the mood of the poem is exactly what the music is about - a progression to maturity and awareness.

This strikes me as the most successful of the three performances with Petrenko achieving a better balance between poetry and dynamism; the fourth and fifth movements Fate and Resolve have all of the latter quality evident in the earlier recordings plus a subtler more lyrical approach to the gentle rapture of passages such as the third movement Love. Petrenko's pacing of the music seems more natural, less forced as well. Yes, he does still allow the Komische Oper players to demonstrate their superbly virtuosic skills but this feels more at the service of the music now than purely as exhilarating display. Competition comes again from Bĕlohlávek and the BBCSO and Pešek in Liverpool but Petrenko is at his best and with a rare and interesting coupling in Suk's Op.9 "A Winter's Tale" (the only other version I know is from Andrew Mogrelia on Naxos - this is better) this disc is well-worth serious consideration.

So to summarise: this is a greatly enjoyable set of music that I find endlessly rewarding presented in excellent sound reflecting forceful and exciting performances. Ideally I would cherry-pick favoured versions of each of the main works with only Ripening competing for an undisputed first choice. If I felt I must have a single conductor/orchestra traversal of this tetralogy I would probably opt for Pešek in Liverpool because he conducts good versions of the three works recorded here plus the all important 'missing' Epilogue. However, as a sample of the quality of Petrenko's work and the excellence of the Komische Oper orchestra this set is of considerable interest. There does not seem to be any particular price benefit buying the three discs together and one should be aware that the liners are written in CPO's earlier preferred style of opaque academe.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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