Suk: Symphony No 2

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Suk
LABELS: Fuga Libera
WORKS: Symphony No. 2 (Asrael); Legend of the Dead Victors
PERFORMER: Belgium National Orchestra/ Walter Weller
CATALOGUE NO: FUG 557

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The forcible expression and sensitive phrasing of the string-playing in the opening bars presage an impressive performance of Josef Suk’s tragic masterpiece. We are never in any doubt that Walter Weller feels the music deeply and has his players well-disciplined to give their all. His tempos are well-chosen, except perhaps for a slightly leaden account of the central scherzo, which should be swifter-winged and more fantastical than this, given that the other four movements are all different varieties of slow.

It is, in one sense, the most intimate performance of Asrael currently available, and one that stresses the work’s Mahlerian affinities to an unusual degree. But by the same token it also seems rather a small-scale reading, though very intense and notwithstanding some splendidly baleful timpani entries: perhaps the National Orchestra of Belgium has fewer than the ideal number of strings, though the closeness of the recording may magnify this impression.

What I miss is the epic dimension, the sheer nobility of the score, so well brought out by Václav Talich’s blazing mono account with the Czech Philharmonic from the 1950s but also, quite recently, by the excellent performance of the Helsinki Philharmonic under Vladimir Ashkenazy on Ondine. Good though Weller is, I would choose either of those accounts over his.

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Unlike them, though, he offers a coupling. The short tone-poem Legend of the Dead Victors, a heartfelt tribute to the Czech legionaries who fought and died on various fronts in World War I, is a patriotic piece par excellence, by turns dignified and dramatic without descending to bombast. It isn’t major Suk, but it’s rarely recorded and makes a useful filler here. Calum MacDonald