Suk: Ripening

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COMPOSERS: Suk
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Ripening, Op. 34; Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: New London Chamber Choir; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5081 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Unlike nearly all contemporary Czech composers, Josef Suk did not write opera so his greatest work is to be found among his orchestral music. The great Asrael Symphony of 1906 was a watershed in his career: faced with the twin tragedies of the death of his beloved mentor and father-in-law, Dvorák, followed rapidly by that of his wife, Otilie, talent was transformed into genius. Three years later he composed the captivating multi-movement tone poem, A Summer’s Tale, and in 1917 he completed Ripening, in some ways the final step toward full maturity. 

Ripening is a complex work scored for a vast orchestra, with extra brass and women’s chorus. Based on a poem by Antonín Sova, in which the storms of life are succeeded by a redemptive calm, Ripening was certainly intended in large part as a musical autobiography. From the opening, the sound world is immediately captivating; Suk admired Debussy and his influence is apparent, but there is a powerful personal voice which consistently draws the ear of the listener. 

The expressive range is enormous, from the contemplative and numinous to the powerfully energetic. The suffering of the loss Suk experienced with the death of Otilie is apparent, but after some muscular counterpoint, handled with almost Straussian virtuosity, he reaches a remarkable catharsis in the radiant closing pages: in Suk’s own words, an affirmation of life. 

Václav Talich conducted Ripening’s 1918 premiere and his fine 1956 recording is the inevitable starting point for comparison. Jirí Belohlávek proves himself a very worthy successor, exerting firm control over the work’s mighty spans and externalising all its richness and extraordinary passion.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra responds magnificently with sumptuous string playing and flawless ensemble. All in all, this superbly recorded and immensely impressive reading makes the case for a work that deserves to be far better known.

Composed in the late 1890s, the E major Symphony already shows much promise: a persuasive handling of motifs, captivating lyricism (notably the second theme of the first movement, deftly transformed into the opening melody of the second) and a penchant for turns toward melancholy.

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The compositional influences are various: Dvorák is there in the rhythmic drive and the lively accompaniment to melodies; there is also a hint of Suk’s friend, Sibelius, in some of the melodic writing in the second movement, but the wide ranging chord changes of the first movement and powerful cumulative build toward its end suggests more than a passing interest in Bruckner. That said, it is far more than an apprentice work. Once again, Belohlávek and his players produce an eloquent, infectious and, above all, idiomatic performance. Jan Smaczny