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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Symphony No. 2, Op. 27 Asrael (1905/1906)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Jakub Hrůša
rec. live, 18-20 October 2018, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900188 [62:43]

The single work on this album, Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony for Large Orchestra, is in my opinion the composer’s magnum opus. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is led by Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša. I have seen the talented Hrůša conduct several times; the last occasion was with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. It is worth noting that one of Hrůša’s teachers was Jiří Bělohlávek, a renowned conductor in the Czech tradition, who recorded Asrael three times (for Supraphon, Chandos and Decca). Hrůša has already also recorded it: live in 2013 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (Exton OVCL00564).

In my view, Suk did his best work with large orchestral forces, notably in four symphonic poems Prague, A Summer’s Tale, Ripening and Tale of a Winter’s Evening, and obviously in Asrael Symphony. The symphony has two sections (five movements) that take just over an hour to perform here. Suk began his work on Asrael in 1905, completing the score the next year, and had it premičred 1907 in Prague. Asrael, the angel of death, is mentioned in Islam, Sikhism and some Hebrew teachings. The piece is surely Suk’s requiem or threnody in memory of both his father-in-law and teacher Antonín Dvořák (d. 1904) and his wife Otylka, Dvořák’s eldest daughter (d. 1905).

Asrael is a heartfelt work, composed out of unbearable suffering. Hrůša entirely understands the journey of the souls of the deceased to the blissful afterlife. In part one, the opening Andante sostenuto, concerning the battle between living and dying, Hrůša provides a remarkable tension that tightens and relaxes, and a sense of anticipation. The Andante seems to reflect night music, much of it presented in a march-like structure. In Hrůša’s reading, the nocturnal character of the writing evokes a winter image of snow and ice. Serving as a Scherzo, the third movement has both brilliance and an unsettling haunted quality in the manner of a danse macabre. The contrasting trio section is afforded considerable emotional tension. Part two, the Adagio, is Suk’s affectionate portrait of his wife Otylka, serving as an homage. Hrůša creates waves of passionate emotion that range from gentle lapping to surging motion. Inhabiting a series of moods from anguished to inspiring, the powerful Finale leads to a cathartic conclusion, like a transfiguration.

The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks delivers a dedicated account that is both penetrating and full of verve. I am impressed by Hrůša’s pacing and by his digging deep into the score. The sound is first-class. Matthias Corvin wrote a most helpful booklet essay A Work of Superhuman Strength.

The competition is fierce. Probably the best-known recordings of asrael come from Jiří Bělohlávek, Rafael Kubelík, Václav Talich, Libor Pešek, Karel Ančerl, Václav Neumann, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Charles Mackerras. Let me list three of the most celebrated: Talich with the Czech Philharmonic (a mono 1952 Prague account on Supraphon), Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic (1997 in Prague on Chandos), and Kubelík with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (1981 at Herkulessaal, Munich on Panton). I have also grown fond of Kirill Petrenko’s 2002 account with the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin (on CPO). I do not rank Hrůša’s Tokyo recording in the same elevated company. The present first-rate recording, however, can join this esteemed list.

Michael Cookson

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