INKPOT#83/II CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Requiem Cycle II – SUK Asrael Symphony. Bavarian Radio SO/Kubelik (Panton)
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Articles from Sequence II:
by Marc Bridle
Josef Suk on the deaths of Dvorak and Otylka Suk.
Some works are born from catastrophe. Mahler’s Ninth is a towering, death-ridden piece written under the embrace of his own illness and the tragedies of his preceding years; Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony is a prophetic memorial constructed as an orchestral requiem in the wake of interminable grief. Death is confronted defiantly, and the artist triumphs. The results are two of the most powerful and original works of the century.
Tragedy and death colour the Asrael in two ways. It was started in 1904 on the death of his father-in-law, Dvorak, and three movements were completed before Suk’s wife, Otylka, died in 1905. In the face of overwhelming unhappiness, and believing music was the only way to save him from utter despair, Suk changed the planned structure, abandoning the elegy-celebration outline he had envisaged, and wrote the remainder as a memorial to his Otylka. The symphony was completed in 1906 and was dedicated to “the sublime memory of Dvorak and Otylka”.
Asrael, the Angel of Death, is everywhere, hovering over and intruding into the structure of the symphony with disturbing regularity. All five movements are strikingly dark-hued, the fortissimo passages evoking the twin peaks of fate and death. This is precisely how the first movement opens, a soft string melody, then the ascent of the strings and the timpani proclaiming the arrival of Death herself, expressed by two intervals and an augmented fourth. This is to be a recurring motif throughout the five movements. The first movement ends with Death again resurgent (13:52 in Kubelik’s performance, suitably conveying the attempted resolution in the major key only to be crushed by the descent into minor), brass growling and strings darkened to emphasise the despair. In the short second movement, Kubelik is all too persuasive in defining the funereal pacing, muted trumpet and a sustained D-flat on the flutes sounding as disconsolate as they should.
The third movement, marked “vivace”, but in essence a scherzo, has none of the demonic power that so overwhelms the scherzo of Mahler’s Ninth. This is more a nightmare, with woodwind that should shriek menacingly and strings soar and screech. The Death motif returns at 12:11 and the brass pinch and roar, 12:54 onwards, to the movements desperate conclusion. This movement is full of dynamic contrasts, from the spectral images of fate to the nervous beauty of the Trio. In Kubelik’s unreservedly Czech hands it comes off superbly, the reinstatement of the death theme simply shattering.
The Adagio was written solely in memory of Otylka. It presents an idyllic portrait of Suk’s late wife but one that is haunting, and uniquely Czech. The beauty of the playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra gives this movement an almost impressionistic quality, strings playing with European refinement and woodwind and brass beautifully phrased.
From the serenity of the closing moments of the Adagio, the opening of the finale erupts with a violence to remind us that the Angel of Death is still the dominant motif in this symphony. Death thunders out on four timpani (reminiscent of the endings of Mahler’s Sixth and Tenth symphonies), igniting a starkness in the orchestration that seems unremitting. Tritones on clarinet (11:04) and fourths on the flutes herald the final appearance of Death. A lone violin sings plangently, an almost ethereal isolation that recalls Debussy, as the symphony draws to its final resolution, ending as imperceptibly as it began.
Kubelik’s performance of this vast work is masterful. He gets from his orchestra playing of superb refinement, great subtlety and a wide dynamic range is provided by the recording engineers. Kubelik finds the right sense of loss that saturates this symphony in a performance of almost cathartic sensibility. It is a worthy recording of one of the greatest works of its time.
566: 12.8.1999 Marc Bridle
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