Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 24 May 2010

Josef Suk - Asrael Symphony, A Summer's Tale, RLPO, Libor Pešek

Josef Suk
‘Asrael’ Symphony Op.27 [62:09]
‘A Summer’s Tale’ Op.29 [51:56]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Libor Pešek – conductor
Recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool May and December 1990 Stereo DDD
Virgin Classics 50999 6 28530 2 6 [62:09+51:56]

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‘Asrael’ started out as Josef Suk’s homage to his father-in-law Antonín Dvořák, but after the early death of Suk’s wife (who was also Dvořák’s daughter) midway through its composition, went on to become a memorial to both. Considering the connections of both the composer and the work to Dvořák, it is surprising how little it sounds like any of his symphonies. The cor anglais has a prominent role in the first movement, recalling perhaps the 9th, and the woodwind colouring has a similar Czech flavour, but in general this is the music of a composer who has successfully moved out of the shadow of his great predecessor.

And while Dvořák’s music succeeds or fails on the strength of its melodic invention, Suk is far more interested in drama, texture and above all innovative orchestration. He is brave enough to regularly reduce the orchestra to a handful of instruments, and to give solos to the tuba, to the low woodwinds and to all sorts of other unlikely candidates. The percussion section is also put through its paces; there aren’t too many unusual instruments there, but cymbals and timpani make regular and unusual contributions to the louder passages.

The work is usually known as Suk’s 2nd Symphony, and it is interesting that this designation is not given on the packaging for this recording. Generically, it sits somewhere between tone poem (albeit of the most abstract kind) and late Romantic symphony. In Dvořák, these two creative impulses serve a common cause, but Suk sets them apart, leaving interpreters the job of deciding which direction the music should take.

Libor Pešek is determined to maintain a symphonic coherency, which occasionally means forgoing atmosphere and involvement. There are occasional caesuras between sections that seem all too brief, and the conductor’s restraint is often apparent in the tuttis. On the other hand, the build-ups and other large-scale structural devices are all excellently handled, and a work that could otherwise seem incoherent and rambling is presented as a tight symphonic unit.

The Liverpool Philharmonic are on good form, demonstrating that even before the arrival of Vasily Petrenko (the recordings were made in the early 90s) the orchestra was a force to be reckoned with. Top musical honours go to the woodwinds, who have their work cut out in both symphonies but prove they are well up to the task. The strings and brass are occasionally a little messy, but not to the extent of spoiling the experience. ‘Asrael’ proved to be a defining point in Suk’s career, and many of his later orchestral works function as sequels of one sort or another. ‘A Summer’s Tale’ was the first of these. As the title suggests, it is slightly more cheery, although it is never carefree as such, and there is always a sardonic streak underlying its happier episodes. We are really in tone poem rather than symphony territory here, but Pešek maintains a firm grip on the structure and large-scale progressions. It is a more melodic work that ‘Asrael’, and again the woodwind carry the bulk of the melodic material. Generally speaking though, the melodies are pleasant and stylistically coherent, rather than memorable and propulsive as in Dvořák.

This double CD is a rerelease of two discs that were originally issued separately. Given the modest price, anybody buying it for the ‘Asrael’ alone would be churlish to complain about the addition of the lesser known ‘Summer’s Tale’. The ‘Asrael’ was nominated for a Gramophone Award in 1992, and that confidence in the recording’s merits is fully justified, as is the decision to rerelease it. The sound on both discs shows its age; neither has the clarity of detail we would expect from a more recent recording. But the woodwind solos are all admirably conveyed, which is a real boon for this music.

A recommended release then, but with the proviso that the recommendation takes into account the budget price. Both recordings are also available on Spotify if you don’t want to take the plunge, but I suspect the lower bit-rate online and the adverts between the movements will make purchasing the discs the more attractive option.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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