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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
[Prefaced by the Czech National Anthem by František Škroup] [1:30]
Asrael Symphony in C minor Op.27 (1906) [59:07]
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Waldhans
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, November 13, 1968 ORCHESTRAL CONCERT CDs CD7/2009 [60:37]
What Geoffrey Terry does with his Virtual Concert Hall Series, is to keep a record of some marvellous old concerts. All of us who attend live music have memories of very special evenings, the advantage he had was to be able to make a recording at the time. In this case, the visit by the Brno orchestra in November 1968, not long after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, was full of significance even before a note was played. The accompanying documentation gives us a flavour of that. For those of us listening today, the question is whether the recorded performance conveys the moment. This one most certainly does. One could warm one’s hands on this reading of Josef Suk’s masterly symphony. Geoffrey Terry has made a recording to be proud of, so this CD falls firmly in the category of “What's not to like?”
Jiří Waldhans was music director at Brno for sixteen years, taking the orchestra from comparative obscurity to a significant place on the international scene. His many recordings for Supraphon down the years made him a stalwart of their catalogue. Today Discogs lists about twenty performances and there are doubtless more. When directing Suk’s Asrael Symphony he is in his element. The large and complex nature of this Late Romantic composition gives him an ideal vehicle to show control of scale and detail without losing sight of either. The dramatic outbursts are very exciting indeed and the long melancholic stretches remain both absorbing and very moving. His Brno players respond with fervour but with never an ugly sound. The strings in particular are wonderfully rich. The timpanist propels some of the climactic moments to high levels: setting the playback to quiet-but-audible at the start will have you enjoying the loud moments at just the right levels.
The Festival Hall audience display great enthusiasm for the music but also quite a lot of ill-timed coughing, caught with the same fidelity as the orchestral playing. As a regular audience-member over decades, I am quite certain we are quieter now than we were in the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps we are healthier, or maybe we show more respect. This should not put off purchasers from buying as good a performance as exists in the current catalogue. The atmosphere of a live concert is worth it, warts and all.