In 1898 Josef Suk married Dvořák’s daughter Otilie: it was a very contented time for Suk (1874-1935); not only was he happily married but he also enjoyed a fruitful relationship with his father-in-law both professionally (as his student) and personally. When Dvořák died in 1904 Suk intended a piece in his memory (to be a celebration of his life) and he started work; but plans changed the following year when Otilie also passed away. Suk commented: “The fearsome Angel of Death struck with his scythe a second time. Such a misfortune either destroys a man or brings to the surface all the powers dormant in him. Music saved me...”. That music was the Asrael Symphony (completed in 1906, white-hot out of double-tragedy, and dedicated to the “noble” deceased father and daughter) – Asrael being the Old Testament Angel of Death – an expansive opus (hovering around an hour in length) and emotionally wide-ranging over its five movements: brooding, tender, eruptive, transcendental. Today, given his dominance, one might term Asrael (described as “funereal” in some quarters, although there’s more to it than that) as Mahlerian.
Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic give a dedicated and inspiring performance – gripping, revelatory – of music that is deeply personal yet universally communicative in its power, passion and beauty; the dual reaction to loss – anger/in search of solace; very few of us are immune from bereavement. Suk’s Symphony opens in lament, soon raging; the expressions are raw, lonely, depressed, if subject to mood-swings, intense – more Schoenberg’s contemporaneous Pelleas und Melisande than anything by Mahler, save the then-still-pending Tenth Symphony – sometimes quick and spectral, if agitated, feverish, and with what might be heard as the momentous if dire summons of the subject Angel, underpinned second-time-round by fateful bass-drum strokes; no escaping the final curtain.
The middle movements embrace an ethereal and expressive Andante (fragrant correspondences with Scriabin, if coincidentally), then a large-scale Vivace (effectively a Scherzo) that is macabre (sprites dancing) and sardonic (grotesque creatures with poking-out tongues) with a slower ‘trio’ that aspires to radiance before nightmares return. Whereas the fourth-movement Adagio digs deep into what music can convey (and what the listener can endure in terms of soul-searching and portrayal, a certain brightness contesting with the darkest colours and the torturous pursuit of consolation).
The Finale, innocently marked Adagio e maestoso, opens with a hammered-out timpani motto to cue music of turmoil and urgency (hardly in-line with the tempo indication), brazen woodwinds and brass highlighted, increasingly demonic ... the Symphony’s coup de théâtre is a transfiguration (exorcism?) that breezes in balmily with spellbinding succour as if from a compassionate deity, luminously orchestrated, the composer now more-resigned at his loss (perhaps), reaching out to other troubled souls... the work ends a bit like Strauss’s Zarathustra, frequencies high and low: tundra, deep earth.
This is Bělohlávek’s third recording of Asrael (I am sorry to not know his previous two, on Chandos and BBCSO/Supraphon respectively) but it speaks volumes on its own terms, entering a discography that includes Ančerl, Ashkenazy, Kubelík, Mackerras, Kirill Petrenko, Svetlanov, et al – and it stands high in the reckoning. The recording is excellent, and the odd cough and noise-off is of no consequence.
Similarly distinguished is Pohádka (1898, the year of Suk’s marriage), music Suk rescued for the concert-hall from an incidental score that he provided for Julius Zeyer's drama Radúz and Mahulena. The named pair are lovers (a blissful first movement, lovely romantic violin and clarinet solos, until something more ominous turns up) and, of course, the writing must reflect the story, so included is ‘Funeral Music’, dignified, Dives & Lazarus-like, if a great contrast to the delightfully folksy ‘Playing at swans and peacocks’ (with its village-band instrumentation, and bassoon moment; Dvořák’s eleventh Legend). And the concluding movement (dramatic/triumphant) describes a curse broken by true love ... so that’s alright. Once again, a truly sympathetic and seasoned Czech reading; and, similarly, applause is removed so as to not disturb the peaceful conclusion.