“Czech Roots” was the theme of this generous concert, part of the orchestra's continuing “Roots and Origins” series this season. Not so much foundational (the Habsburg-dependent Dussek-Vranický-Reicha-Voříšek line) as blossoms and branches well up the tree (the post-1840s nationalist revival: Smetana's Libuše, to a German libretto translated into Czech, opened the National Theatre in Prague in 1881).
The Slavs generally, the Czechs particularly – from Talich through Kubelik, Ančerl and Neumann to Bělohlávek – bring a deep-seated heart to their music. However stark the issue, however chilling the language, however draining the tension or psychology of the hour, the warmth of a flickering hearth in the background is somehow never far away. Song and dance, of an ever distinctive cut and timbre, feather all manner of horizons, distant or near.
Cooler and more calculated in temperature, Northern European autumnal with a touch of frost, Truls Mørk and Sir John Eliot Gardiner delivered a Dvořák concerto of reflection, valediction and requiem, a letter home from New York 1895 coloured by yearning and life's passing. Orchestrally moulded, the precision and beauty of phrasing could scarcely be faulted. The woodwind exchanges were as spiritually poetic and intricately sculpted as any I've heard. Some in the audience, in the end more polite than ecstatic in response, may perhaps have expected, wanted, more passion and intensity. But Mørk is not that kind of player, his priorities centering on quality of tone and articulation, eloquence of sound, more than baring his soul. His encore – Casals's El cant dels ocells (Song of the Birds), dispensing with prelude and postlude – silenced the room. Pellucid and placed, a masterclass in deportment and high art.
Asrael: the angel of death in Islamic tradition, said to know the fate of mortals and transport them to the hereafter. Premiered in Prague in 1907, Josef Suk's five-movement Second Symphony (1905-06) started as a memorial to his teacher, friend and father-in-law, Dvořák, but finished as an in memoriam for his young wife Otilie (Otilka), who died from a congenital coronary condition in July 1905, aged twenty-seven. At around an hour, give or take (this performance took about sixty-five minutes), the structure is massive, deploying large orchestral forces often sparingly, and liberally contrasting dramatised tuttis and bold attacks with chamber-like chapters of expressively purposed tints and doublings. A score, Hugh Macdonald once wrote, of “feverish heartbeat and strong emotional overreach”, “from a time when Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler walked the earth, and when music of the most imaginable complexity for large orchestra was being created afresh with each passing year”. Listening to it, one searches for influences and models. But, aside from Dvořák, and the odd glimmer of Smetana, its voice remains a decisively personal one.
Arguably, one finds glimpses of the Russians (Tchaikovsky, Liadov) and Faustian “New German” Liszt, but nothing of Brahms or Mahler. Strauss surfaces only fleetingly. The creative mesh is complex, a subtext of allusionary quotations drawing on Suk's earlier incidental music to Radúz and Mahulena as well as (in the chromaticised second movement) Dvořák's Requiem. Elsewhere, in the harmonically esoteric fourth and fifth 'Otilka' movements comprising Part Two of the work, the descending minor-third clarinet/cor anglais interval from the middle of Dvořák's Carnival Overture – “the lonely, contemplative wanderer” – is a forlorn presence (its ascending form opens the symphony). The threnodic overtones of Dvořák's Cello Concerto – commemorating his early love and later sister-in-law, Josefina – are present if not quoted.
Death and funeral, a professed search for consolation, and the consoling of others, determines the 'Asrael' Symphony. Suk called it a 'symphony' and he did dutifully symphonic things in its course – a spectral scherzo, a finale fugato, cyclic referencing. But much else – stretches of operatic intention, panels of tableau painting, remembered love and closeness, pain, the juxtaposed mood swings (more graduated than Mahlerian abrupt) – suggests a wider universe. An old tapestry, a latterday tragedy, of life and loss from a man barely into his thirties. Within its 250-pages spiral the ghosts of Kafka to come: “I dream of a grave, deep and narrow, where we could clasp each other in our arms as with clamps, and I would hide my face in you and you would hide your face in me, and nobody would ever see us any more”.
'Asrael' enjoys a longevity and status with the Czechs rivalling 'Má vlast'. The bleakness yet fire, the hewn muscular climaxes, the bite and driven pulse of Talich's 1952 recording with the Czech Philharmonic remains the legendary yardstick. In London it's had a poor deal. I recall a single Proms outing – Libor Pešek in 1991. Then Jiří Bělohlávek (BBC Symphony), 2008; Daniel Harding (LSO) and Vladimir Jurowski (LPO), 2010; and Jakub Hrůša (Philharmonia), 2014.
Born of a different temperamental identity, Sir John’s take was paced, with time to let lyricism unfold and the tougher sinew to gel with a degree of urgency. Occasionally, I wanted the tears to flow with greater Bohemian ache and rubato from within – some of the more leisured flights and expanses leant possibly too readily on Hollywood, Korngold and sweet-sentiment 1940, while the final chorale was conceivably more Windsor Castle than Vyšehrad. But he allowed his woodwind principals plenty of scope for their emotional personalities to burgeon. The gran cassa triplets of the the first movement, properly fortissimo molto marcato, thundered fatefully. The second movement Andante was graciously unfurled. And the violin and cello solos (Carmine Lauri, Rebecca Gilliver) were cultured and characterful – their sound-world poignantly nuancing Dvořák and Josefina as much as Suk and Otilka. En masse, the strings of the LSO triumphed over the considerable difficulties before them, by the C-major close arriving at a cathartically balanced pianissimo 'Death and Transfiguration' violin/viola finish offset against two low 'Zarathustra' B-flat minor/E-flat minor divisi cello/doublebass sidesteps, Sir John holding the decaying silence admirably.
Face to face with the privacy, the circles, of Suk's grief, journey spent, the reception, not unexpectedly, was muted. But no less sincere for that.