The last of the Philharmonia’s “Bohemian Legends” series paired an extremely familiar work – Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor – with an extremely unfamiliar one: Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony in C minor. It was my first hearing of the Suk, as, I suspect, it will have been for the vast majority of the audience.
The Dvořák is one of my favourite concerti – one of those rare works that I have heard dozens of times without ever feeling that it has been overplayed. The work has a golden combination of three things: immensely gripping melodies which are developed and repeated in a satisfying way, delicious orchestration, particularly in the use of woodwind and horns which is sparing but telling, and a sense of purpose and progress that runs through each movement. Part of the joy defies analysis – the concerto embodies a fusion of emotion and nature in a uniquely Czech way.
Last night’s performance, however, was disappointingly uneven. Many of the concerto’s qualities were well displayed: Jakub Hrůša conducted with a fine sense of pace and dynamics, the large trombone/tuba section sounded full and grand, the horn passage early in the first movement brimmed with nobility and there were stunningly beauty passages where Dvořák sets a single woodwind instrument against a gentle background of strings. Cellist Truls Mørk played with precision and delicate phrasing.
But there were several basics that didn’t quite work. For me, the main problems were in string sound. Mørk’s cello sound was thin, often to the point of being barely audible: I find it hard to judge whether the cause was the hall, the instrument or the way it was played, but the effect was evident. The orchestral string sound wasn’t quite right either, fine in the loud tutti, but not achieving the lustre or shimmer that one would hope for in the more moderate passages. And the soloist and orchestra never seemed to be of one mind, achieving that desired level of interplay where each reinforces the other.
The pairing of Suk’s Asrael Symphony with the Dvořák was an ambitious one. It’s 60 minutes of intense, mostly minor key music known to few non-Czechs; a noticeable number of audience members left after the interval. But they missed a work that may be little known outside its native country but one that was critically acclaimed from its outset. This symphony left me scratching my head as to why it isn’t performed more often.
Josef Suk was one of Dvořák’s star pupils, as well as marrying his daughter Otilie. When his mentor died in 1904, Suk set out to write a symphony in his memory, intended to combine a joyous tribute to Dvořák’s life and work within an appropriately funereal context. Midway through the symphony’s composition, tragedy struck in the shape of Otilie’s death from heart disease. She was just 27. Somehow, Suk found it within himself to complete the work, but the “joyous tribute” part never really happened – the result is a serious and intense symphonic experience, with the name giving a clue: Asrael is the Angel of Death.
Suk’s music shows plenty of influence from his mentor, most notably in the overall string timbre and in his use of brass and woodwind. But this is clearly a man who has listened to the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler and who has absorbed many of their techniques, albeit without most of their idiosyncrasies. In common with Bruckner’s greatest works, the Asrael is very long but never feels long. The movements build, with an ebb and flow in which you are either bowled over by the intensity of a climax or waiting in eager anticipation of the next one. The slow fourth movement is particularly strong in this way, with the climaxes ratcheting up to phenomenal intensity.
There are all manner of interesting orchestral tricks, such as the gently plucked lowest notes on the harp providing the underlay for pizzicato low strings, and an extraordinary pianissimo pizzicato fugue. The large brass-laden fanfares are as potent as anything in Mahler. And while most of the work is minor key and bleak, there is a hint of redemption in the end as the music moves to C major for a delicate, evanescent ending.
The orchestral performance was an improvement on the first half of the concert, but still had its failings. Once again, general pace and dynamics were good, but a number of passages were marred by ensemble playing that wasn’t perfectly together or solo phrases which contained slight hesitation. Still, it was good enough to present a clear view of the qualities of this symphony, and to take my breath away on many occasions. This is a work I will be wanting to hear again.