Suk: Asrael Symphony

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WORKS: Asrael Symphony
PERFORMER: Berlin Komische Oper Orchestra/Kirill Petrenko
CATALOGUE NO: 777 001-2
The centenary of Dvorák’s death is an appropriate time to be considering the Asrael Symphony by his son-in-law Josef Suk, which was begun in 1905 as a heartfelt commemoration of his mentor. But it turned into a double tribute when Otilie, Dvorák’s daughter and Suk’s young wife, succumbed to a fatal heart condition during its composition. Where lesser mortals might have been felled by such tragedy, Suk found solace in composition and produced what is often regarded as his masterpiece, a five-movement symphony about the transience of the soul and named after the Muslim angel of death, all written in a full-blown, late-Romantic idiom (as a guide, it’s an exact contemporary of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande and Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau). The Orchestra of the Komische Oper in Berlin gives a feisty account of the score but is let down by a few insecurities in the more exposed string passages and by a live concert recording that, though ample, seems to have a microphone on conductor Kirill Petrenko’s lapel, so effusive are his grunts, moans and snorts. Two of the most successful rival recordings feature the Czech Philharmonic: a mid-Eighties account conducted by Václav Neumann (Supraphon), with a less immediate ambience to the recording, but understandably a more authentically Czech character to the playing; and a more warmly recorded Chandos performance in which Jirí Belohlávek draws out the work’s heartfelt emotions with greater sincerity than anyone. Matthew Rye