PERFORMER: Helsinki PO/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: ODE 1132-5
Wrung out of him by the double trauma caused by the deaths of his wife and his revered father-in-law Dvoπák, Josef Suk’s Asrael (‘Angel of Death’) Symphony was the work that transformed him from a composer of middling achievement to an early 20th-century heavyweight.
Over an hour long, in five movements, mostly slow but with an excoriating central scherzo, imbued with tragedy and elegy and dominated by a tritonal ‘Fate’ motif, the work is Mahlerian in scale and ambition but without Mahlerian irony: the pervasive sense of loss is eventually assuaged by a show of resolution, a chorale and the consolations of nature.
The most powerful recorded performances have almost always been by Czech’s, with Vaclav Talich’s blazing mono account with the Czech Philharmonic from the 1950s still in many ways holding the palm for passion and intensity, despite the now-elderly sound. But this new SACD, which appears to be the first entirely non-Czech rendition, is highly competitive.
Ashkenazy stresses the lyricism as well as the anguish of Suk’s score; this is a performance of great dignity and nobility, with fine attention to detail, especially in the often complex woodwind writing. But he is also highly exciting in both the rhythmic drive of the scherzo and the dramatic fast music of the finale.
The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra play as if the piece was as firmly in their repertoire as it is in Prague, and the recording sound is outstanding: the effect of the first movement’s coda, for instance, with its keening violins, minatory brass fanfares and remorseless bass drum beats, is overwhelming. Calum MacDonald