Recorded 3 & 4 January 2012 in Watford Colosseum, England
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5109 Duration: 80 minutes Reviewed: September 2012
Josef Suk’s Prague and A Summer’s Tale – BBCSO/Bělohlávek [Chandos]
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
On 8 September 2012, when he conducted The Last Night of the Proms, Jiří Bělohlávek stepped down as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He became Conductor Emeritus. At about the same time Chandos issued this handsome and generous coupling of two symphonic poems for large orchestra by Josef Suk (1874-1935), a composer and fellow-countryman that Bělohlávek has been a consistent champion of. (He and the BBCSO have already recorded Ripening and Symphony No.1 for Chandos, on CHSA 5081.)
Prague (1904) is a musical portrait of “the history and mystery” of the city that Suk was born near to. The composing of the score, which lasts about 25 minutes, is shrouded in the tragedy of the deaths in close succession of his wife and his father-in-law, Antonin Dvořák. From solace grew this orchestral depiction of Prague, a varied and attractive work reflecting the place’s dark and heroic times, its sun-kissed magnificence and its capacity to stir romance. In this performance the Hussite chorale (more-familiar from Smetana’s Má vlast) is sounded with pride, the pages suggesting turbulence are impressively distilled and there is some sensitive tone-colouring elsewhere.
A Summer’s Tale (mostly written in 1907 during a holiday period, hence the title, but tinkered with up until the 1909 first performance) is on a large scale, lasting around 55 minutes. The work contrasts the healing powers of nature with the vicissitudes of life (real and imagined) and radiates much solo and deft chamber scoring against the power of a full orchestra. One might hear the Impressionism of Debussy, albeit as evocations of the Bohemian countryside, as Suk’s tries to exorcise his soul of its tortures, often with heart’s-ease, but not without a struggle. In successive movements – there are five – we encounter the lazy hazy motions induced by the midday sun, then two blind musicians are sadly portrayed, after which a sinister scherzo of phantoms proves a gawky, fleet and shadowy rejoinder (might Suk have heard Mahler’s Seventh Symphony – finished in 1906 and premiered in 1908, in Prague?). Finally ‘Night’ is a contemplative epilogue, offering peace and faith, deeply expressed. The performance is magnificent, Jiří Bělohlávek at-one with the music and inspiring the BBC Symphony Orchestra to shape and shade the score’s every nook and cranny in the most persuasive way.
In both works the recorded sound, as opulent as it is lucid as it is dynamic, is the perfect complement.