Suk: Symphony No 2 Op 27 (Asrael Symphony) -
A Summer's Tale Op 29.
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Libor Pesek.
Virgin Classics 6 28530 2 6 • 62' + 52' • (2 CDs)
Asrael started out as Josef Suk’s homage to his father-in-law Antonín
Dvorák, but after the early death of Suk’s wife - who was
also Dvorák’s daughter - midway through its composition,
went on to become a memorial to both. Considering the connections of both
the composer and the work to Dvorák, it is surprising how little
it sounds like any of his symphonies. The cor anglais has a prominent
role in the first movement, recalling perhaps the Ninth, and the woodwind
colouring has a similar Czech flavour. That said, in general this is the
music of a composer who has successfully moved out of the shadow of his
And while Dvorák’s music succeeds or fails on the strength
of its melodic invention, Suk is far more interested in drama, texture
and above all innovative orchestration. He is brave enough regularly to
reduce the orchestra to a handful of instruments, and to give solos to
the tuba, to the low woodwinds and to all sorts of other unlikely candidates.
The percussion section is also put through its paces; there aren’t
too many unusual instruments there, but cymbals and timpani make regular
and unusual contributions to the louder passages.
The work is usually known as Suk’s 2nd Symphony, and it is interesting
that this designation is not given on the packaging for this recording.
Generically, it sits somewhere between tone poem - albeit of the most
abstract kind - and late-Romantic symphony. In Dvorák, these two
creative impulses serve a common cause, but Suk sets them apart, leaving
interpreters the job of deciding which direction the music should take.
|Josef Suk in 1934
Libor Pesek is determined to maintain a symphonic coherency, which occasionally
means foregoing atmosphere and involvement. There are occasional caesuras
between sections that seem all too brief, and the conductor’s restraint
is often apparent in the tuttis. On the other hand, the build-ups and
other large-scale structural devices are all excellently handled. A work
that could otherwise seem incoherent and rambling is presented as a tight
The Liverpool Philharmonic are on good form, demonstrating that even before
the arrival of Vasily Petrenko - the recordings were made in the early
1990s - the orchestra was a force to be reckoned with. Top musical honours
go to the woodwinds, who have their work cut out in both symphonies but
prove they are well up to the task. The strings and brass are occasionally
a little messy, but not to the extent of spoiling the experience.
Asrael proved to be a defining point in Suk’s career, and many of
his later orchestral works function as sequels of one sort or another.
A Summer’s Tale was the first of these. As the title suggests, it
is slightly more cheery, although it is never carefree as such, and there
is always a sardonic streak underlying its happier episodes. We are really
in tone poem rather than symphony territory here, but Pešek maintains
a firm grip on the structure and large-scale progressions. It is a more
melodic work than Asrael, and again the woodwind carry the bulk of the
melodic material. Generally speaking though, the melodies are pleasant
and stylistically coherent, rather than memorable and propulsive as in
This double CD is a re-release of two discs that were originally issued
separately. Given the modest price, anybody buying it for the Asrael alone
would be churlish to complain about the addition of the lesser known Summer’s
Tale. The Asrael was nominated for a Gramophone Award in 1992, and that
confidence in the recording’s merits is fully justified, as is the
decision to re-release it. The sound on both discs shows its age; neither
has the clarity of detail we would expect from a more recent recording.
But the woodwind solos are all admirably conveyed, which is a real boon
for this music.
A commendable release then, but with the proviso that this takes into
account the budget price. Both recordings are also available on Spotify
if you don’t want to take the plunge, but I suspect the lower bit-rate
online and the adverts between the movements will make purchasing the
discs the more attractive option.