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Josef Suk
Symphony in C minor, op 237 (Asrael)
Jiri Waldhans conducting the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded live in Royal Festival Hall, London, on November 13th, l968)
Review By Max Westler

 

  There are various and sundry reasons why a great piece of music might find itself excluded or banished from the standard repertory. Rather than yet another dutiful slog through a Bruckner symphony, why not Furtwangler's worthy and compelling Second Symphony? For that matter, why not the rarely programmed Fourth or Fifth Symphonies of Dvorak instead of the standard fare of the Eighth or Ninth? Why not Prokofiev's rarely-played Fourth Symphony instead of the ubiquitous Fifth? I bet you can already guess the answer: conservative audiences have little tolerance for unfamiliar works, and so conductors often feel obliged to walk the well-trodden path. And then there are works that rise or fall with the reputations of their composers. The music of both Vaughn Williams and Paul Hindemith is currently in disfavor, and that makes it all the more unlikely we'll be hearing the former's Eighth or Ninth Symphonies or the latter's Symphony in E anytime soon. Berlioz' Requiem is one of his greatest works, but it calls for large forces--enhanced orchestra, soloists, full chorus--so it's way more cost-effective to program the Symphonie Fantastique (yet again). Benjamin Britten's delightful ballet The Prince of the Pagodas is not the first work doomed by early negative reviews. And there have always been works that "do not travel well." Nielsen's Masquerade is the Danish national opera, but it has yet to be performed at the Met. The music of Max Reger is almost never heard outside of Germany, when it's heard at all. The same goes for Hans Pfitzner's Von Deutscher Seele; but of course the composer's fervent Nazi enthusiasms might also have something to do with that.

I assume every music lover has his or her own list of neglected masterpieces. At the top of mine you'll find Joseph Suk's Asrael Symphony. Suk's early life was interwoven with that of his teacher, mentor--and later, his father-in-law, Antonin Dvorak. Suk first encountered the great man as a teacher when he entered the Prague Conservatory as a precocious 11 year old.  At 18 Suk formed a string quartet to champion Dvorak's music in Europe. And in 1898 he married Dvorak's only daughter Otylka. The heavy influence of the older composer on the younger can be heard in many of Suk's early works, most notably in his delightful string serenade, modeled closely on Dvorak's. Had tragedy not struck, Suk's music, howsoever popular at the time, would probably have been entirely forgotten. But then, in less than a year, he suffered two hammer blows. Touring Spain in 1904, he received word that Dvorak had died. And less than a year later, his beloved Otylka also succumbed. As Suk himself said afterward, "Such misfortunes can either destroy a man or bring to the surface all the powers dormant in him. Music saved me." Specifically, the music that saved him was the Asrael Symphony, which he began soon after Dvorak's death and finally completed in 1906.

It's easy to characterize the Asrael Symphony as one of those works that doesn't travel well, given that the only recordings we have of it are by Czech conductors and orchestras. But I think the real barriers to its being widely accepted lie in the complexity of its structure and its intensely cathartic emotional content. Written for a Mahler-sized orchestra and spanning sixty minutes, the symphony is in five movements that take us from the terror and devastation of death to a luminous sense of grace and resignation. Along the way, we experience an eerie funeral march, an infernal scherzo, a rustic dance that recalls Dvorak, a plaintive long song that's both affectionate and searing, and a final contest between light and dark that ends in a magical, transcendent calm. As this brief (and altogether inadequate) synopsis suggests, don't expect the comforting solace of the Brahms or Faure Requiems. The canvas might well be epic, but the drama isn't in any way abstract or mythic. The dimensions here are wholly human and deeply affecting. There's not a moment of sentimentality or melodrama. Suk gives us "the full measure of aching loss" without evasions, and in a superb performance like the one under consideration here, the final effect is overwhelming.

There have been two great recordings of the work: Vaclav Talich's with the Czech Philharmonic from the 1950's and a transcription of a live performance by Rafael Kubelik with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. But the problem with both of those performances is the sound: lackluster mono in the Talich, a compressed and narrow dynamic range in the Kubelik. Like the music of Mahler and Strauss, this work requires the best possible sound, and that's exactly what it receives here. Recorded with two microphones at the Royal Festival Hall, this live performance has been captured with an astonishing realism and presence that let the tenderness and ferocity of the music register with a transparent clarity and bone-rattling power.

In an earlier review, I praised a live recording of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony by these same forces. But this performance is something very special indeed. Three months before, Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, Hungarian, and East German troops, half a million in all, invaded Czechoslovakia, crushing the "Prague Spring," and supplanting the reform government of Alexander Dubcek with an iron repression in which many political and intellectual leaders were imprisoned. Clearly Waldhans and his orchestra used their London visit to publicly voice a defiant protest, and the sense of rage and grief that one hears in the music gives this performance an intense and unforgettable edge. We are indebted to Geoffrey Terry for having preserved what is more than just a great performance of Suk's masterpiece, but a historic occasion. How appropriate the disc opens with a stirring rendition of the Czech National Anthem.

 

 

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