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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael, Symphony in C minor, Op.27 (1906) [59:55]
Essen Philharmonic Orchestra/Tomáš Netopil
rec. November 2016, Philharmonie Essen, Alfred Krupp Saal

Tomáš Netopil took over the post of Chief Music Director of the Essen Philharmonic at the start of the 2013-14 season, though he is heard widely throughout Europe with a raft of prestigious engagements and directorships to his name. For the two performances on successive days that he and the orchestra gave of Suk’s Asrael Symphony the new critical edition of the score was used. It’s now available for hire through Bärenreiter Praha. The textual differences are largely to do with elements of orchestration, and with changes to dynamics and articulation. These details are certainly valuable additions to the establishment of a standard new text though they won’t, to any noticeable degree, affect recommendations based on the many existing recordings dating back to Talich.

This is a work that hasn’t lacked for fine recordings, even though sometimes years passed without a new one appearing. That changed when live recordings began to appear – Kubelík, Svetlanov, Waldhans – to supplement the studio discography carved out by Talich and his pupil Mackerras, Bělohlávek, Neumann, Pešek and Petrenko. It’s notable that the vast majority of performances cleave to very similar speeds and tempo relationships. In some cases, remarkably, it’s really only a question of seconds here and there. The only exception to what I’d call the narrative of tempo uniformity of the Asrael on disc - despite Svetlanov’s occasional propensity for slower tempi - is that of Kubelík on Panton. His tempi are expansive and, in the context, wrenching. Netopil fits securely into the conformist narrative, which is no bad thing.

His orchestra is neat and precise, built from the bass up though not with a granitic sound. He brings out the strange baroque-tinged elements of the first movement well and his gear changes, such as there are, are naturally done. If the second movement sounds rather detached, even objectified, it’s still more than acceptable. But when you judge his central scherzo with Talich’s then doubts set in. Talich’s Czech Philharmonic articulates with dazzling wit, firefly brilliance, with the result that the music sounds spontaneous and vivid. Netopil can’t bring his orchestra with him and in any case, he is far too metrical. The result is a cosmopolitan approach that sounds altogether too rigid. Listen, too, to the Czechs’ bass extension in the long slow fourth movement – expressive, graphic, generating an intense threnody. At a very similar tempo the detailing in Essen is missing and the music sounds tentative, almost provisional. The soft grained orchestral playing can’t help but sound undernourished.

So, despite the potential advance in scholarship enshrined in this disc, it can’t seriously be recommended despite the fine sound. Old stagers will nourish Talich, those looking for something more personal will need Kubelík, whilst Bělohlávek’s recording with the Czech Phil (he also recorded it with the BBC Symphony) on Supraphon is a fine modern recommendation.

Jonathan Woolf



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