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Dip Your Ears, No. 120 (Suk's Asrael)

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Josef Suk, Symphony in c-minor, op. 27 “Asrael” ,
V.Ashkenazy / Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Ondine ODE 1132-5 [SACD 61:32]

Asrael is one of the grand symphonic beauties that don’t seem to get their due in the concert hall. It suffers from neglect for no other reason than having been composed by a composer who isn’t famous enough to have become a concert program staple, Josef Suk. Of course he is not alone in this neglect—every fine work that hasn’t snuck into the canon of ‘greatest hits’ suffers from it to some extent. That’s why recordings are so important and wonderful to have; they allow us to cyclically ‘rediscover’ precisely these works. They pop up, pique our interest, and remind us of the hidden gems that can’t all be in the classical Top 40. It would be silly to feign the naïve hope they ever will… so I content myself with these spurts of re- and re-re-discoveries.

Suk especially deserves regular such spurts. Perhaps you have come across Suk’s “Summer Tale” [wonderful recording with Charles Mackerras on Decca] or enjoyed his Elegy for Violin, Cello and Piano as a filler on a Dvořák disc like the Florestan Trio’s (Hyperion). The one-hour Asrael Symphony is Suk’s largest work, and arguably his greatest, too. Well performed, it is, in the best sense, a terrific and terrifying work.

When you’ve had your fill of the commonly played late romantic symphonists—whether wallowing Tchaikovsky, melodic Prokofiev, or atmospheric Sibelius—you could continue with the Asrael Symphony on the same qualitative level and hear new, invigorating sounds on a large musical canvas. His style has similarities with his now more famous contemporaries Janáček and Martinů (the latter not exactly a staple in concert, either), except that he sounds more like a late 19th century composer than an early 20th century composer (which is the way I hear Janáček).

Asrael started out as a great five movement symphony in response to the death of his mentor and father in law, Dvořák. The first movement is an intensely personal requiem without words, the dark grit and wrenching of a mourning heart being as palpable as in a Shostakovich string quartet.

After composing the third movement (Vivace), tragedy struck again; now in the form of his wife’s death. In response he scratched plans for the fourth and the final movement and instead composed two stirring Adagios that he tacked on the end. The first of the two is calm pain, heaving heavily under the burden of the death of his wife, Otylka Suk, née Dvořák. The second feels more like the anger of grief; a bit like the finale of Mahler’s Sixth on a leash, or the more violent moments in Sibelius.

If you already love the symphony, Ashkenazy and Ondine offer one thing that even Kirill Petrenko (cpo), Václav Neumann (Supraphon), and Václav Talich (alsoSuprahon) do not offer: Top notch modern sound—including 5.0 surround if you are SACD equipped. Perhaps it is Ashkenazy’s involvement, or something about the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, that made me think more of Sibelius hearing this version than any of the others, but that is not to say that there is something fishy or foreign about this rendition. In fact, this has got to be the most pristinely played, and it packs as much a punch as the ones mentioned above… and well possibly more.