Suk: Asrael Symphony

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LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: Asrael Symphony
PERFORMER: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Charles Mackerras (recorded live, April 2007)

This is one of the cornerstones of 20th-century Czech music. When Josef Suk composed the Asrael symphony, Janácek was perceived as an uncertain outsider and his own star and that of his close contemporary, Novák, were only just beginning to rise. The death of Suk’s teacher, Dvorák, and his daughter Otilie, Suk’s wife, transformed his nascent talent into genius – this work was the result.
Building on a superb compositional technique, schooled in the best Czech tradition and fed with an enthusiasm for Debussy and Sibelius, Suk created something entirely new in the music of his nation. Asrael encompasses formal experiment, superb orchestration, a magnificent grasp of scale and, above all, an unerring feeling for catharsis.
Charles Mackerras’s performance encapsulates all of these qualities. There is much, of course, that is poignant about this release. It is almost certainly the last recording we will have from Sir Charles and the Czech Philharmonic, with whom he had such a long and fruitful association, but there is a fundamental link with his mentor and, arguably, the greatest Czech conductor, Václav Talich, a friend of Suk and one of his finest interpreters.
Mackerras’s reading stands proudly in this tradition. Not only does he see the staggering originality of Suk’s vision, but, effortlessly, he folds into his interpretation the depth of his knowledge of the Czech repertoire. There are several fine recordings of this work, not least those of Talich himself and, more recently, Jiπí Belohlávek, but this is the closest to the definitive version we have. Jan Smaczny