The Eternal Gospel
Asrael (Symphony in C minor), Op.27
Sofia Fomina (soprano) & Adrian Thompson (tenor)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 20 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Having made occasional appearances on concert programmes this past quarter-century, Josef Suk’s Asrael is currently enjoying more frequent exposure. Jiří Bělohlávek gave a fine account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra two years back, while Daniel Harding has scheduled it with the London Symphony at the end of this season. Vladimir Jurowski was thus tackling less of a rarity than other inclusions in his second season at the helm of the London Philharmonic, which may indirectly have influenced the nature of a performance which, secure in most respects, offered little in the way of revelation.
In one respect, his approach was exemplary – the attacca between the first three and the last two movements observed so that the work’s two-part trajectory was made acutely evident. In terms of overall follow-through, however, there was more to be desired. Subdued but never sluggish, the slow introduction unfolded well enough but the transition into the main allegro was rushed and what ensued was often little more than an expertly prepared overview of a movement which interprets sonata-form with a cohesion and momentum the composer may not have achieved had it not been for the death of his mentor (and father-in-law) Dvořák. In particular, the implacable restatement of the main theme at the start of the coda had a swiftness and objectivity surely at odds with the spirit of the music at this point. Jurowski was on surer ground in the intermezzo-cum-funeral march of the second movement – its deadpan irony and ominous ‘held’ chords tellingly rendered – but the scherzo lacked malevolence in its outer section while the central section wanted in pathos, there being no relaxation here or in an explosive final surge that here seemed decidedly underwhelming.
The second part opens with a heartfelt Adagio (inspired by the composer’s wife Otilka, who had just died) to which Jurowski did full justice, as well as bringing out the best from the LPO’s wind and strings. The rhetorical start to the finale was powerfully rendered, making the rather piecemeal approach to what followed (the uncoiling fugato towards the movement’s centre having precision but little expressive intensity) the more surprising, the eventual climax falling short of the fateful denouement it needed to be. Jurowski then handled the transition into the coda adeptly enough, and brought out much of the intimate transcendence in what follows, but an earlier lack of a sustained emotional charge meant that the finale was little more than the sum of its parts. In which respect, it was all too consistent with the nature of this well-prepared but provisional interpretation as a whole.
An ambitious programme had seen the half devoted to Janáček. A listless and fragmented approach to ‘The Death of Andrei’ suggested that Taras Bulba was in need of a little more preparation; the performance gelling more securely in ‘The Death of Ostap’ (whose climactic clarinet solo had a graphic immediacy), but the cumulative build-up of the hero’s ‘Prophecy’ was more successful than the heaven-storming apotheosis of his ‘Death’. There was some fine individual playing, but performances of this singular ‘rhapsody’ are too frequent these days for this to have been no more than an also-ran.
It might have been worth opening the concert with other music by Janáček (or even another Czech composer), as the contrast with “The Eternal Gospel” did not benefit either piece. Even so, inclusion of this unwieldy yet absorbing hybrid of symphonic poem and cantata was welcome in view of its rarity. Written on the brink of his final period, this setting of Jarosalv Vrchlický’s poem concerning Medieval mystic Joachim of Fiore’s revelations has a fervency that came across strongly. It helped that Sofia Fomina was so eloquent in the lines allotted to the Angel, and if Adrian Thompson – standing in at very short notice for an indisposed Michael König – was severely tested in the cruelly lying tenor part, his commitment was never in doubt. Neither was that of the London Philharmonic Choir, making for a gripping performance that was by some measure the highlight of the evening.