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 Recording of the Week  Suk's Asrael Symphony

Josef Suk’s Asrael symphony is in my view one of the world’s most underrated masterpieces. I think because people aren’t quite sure how or where to place Suk, his greatest work has suffered from a similar neglect. It is scored for large orchestra and, spread over five movements and lasting about an hour, it is of Mahlerian proportions. There have been a reasonable number of recordings over the last few years which perhaps suggests that the work is finally starting to gain the reputation it deserves. Indeed, it is a new release out today from the late great Sir Charles Mackerras which is my excuse for telling you about it this week.

Josef Suk
Josef Suk

Josef Suk began planning his Asrael Symphony in 1904 after the death of his father-in-law and beloved teacher Antonin Dvorak. It was always meant as a memorial and the work title ‘Asrael’ is derived from the Islamic Archangel of Death who leads the souls of the deceased to the land of eternal blissfulness. During its composition though Suk suffered a further devastating loss with the death of his wife Otilka (Dvorak’s daughter) at the tender age of just 27. As he later stated, it was these two tragic losses which made the symphony what it is:

“Such a misfortune either destroys a man or brings to the surface all the powers dormant in him. It looked like I might be of that first kind, but Music saved me and after a year I began the second part of the symphony, beginning with an adagio, a tender portrait of Otilka. In a very short time, and with superhuman energy, I became immersed in the terrors of the last movement which nevertheless ends in the clarity and calm of C major. Blessed be the dead.

Listening to this symphony and trying to describe Suk’s influences is not straightforward as, while you can still hear the Czech origins of Smetana and Dvorak, both Russian music (such as Tchaikovsky and Borodin) and the influences of Mahler, Wagner and Richard Strauss are all not far from the surface. It is immensely powerful music, richly scored but with an intimacy essential for a symphony dealing with loss as its subject matter. It ends with a beautiful coda full of optimism and hope which is as moving as anything in the repertoire. If you don’t know it, it really is worth hearing.

Sir Charles Mackerras had a well-renowned affinity with Czech music, dating back to his student days when he studied there with Václav Talich, and this disc (recorded live in 2007) was one of his last performances with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra – an orchestra with which he was closely associated throughout his career. It is a terrific performance, achieving the rhythmic and melodic clarity which Mackerras was always so good at without compromising any of the warmth or rhythmic drive which this symphony demands. The orchestra sound entirely committed and the recorded sound is excellent.

Undoubtedly one of finest recordings of this work ever made, this comes very highly recommended.

Suk: Asrael Symphony, Op. 27

Recorded live at the Rudolfinum, Prague, on April 5-6, 2007

ech Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras

Available Format: CD