SUK Asrael Symphony. Fairy Tale (Bělohlávek)
How gratifying that Jiří Bělohlávek was able to re record Suk’s Asrael in his second tenure at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic. His first version had no lack of eloquence or fervour, but also a tendency to hold back during climactic passages; something later redressed in his live reading with the BBC Symphony, with its passing flaws in ensemble and vagaries of balance.
Neither of these is an issue here, as witness a first movement that emerges purposefully from its sombre introduction into an allegro of trenchant resolve, maintained throughout an impulsive development and culminating in an anguished apotheosis. The Intermezzo wears its Mahlerian overtones discreetly, not least that mesmeric passage where the funeral-march theme dissolves into overlapping pizzicatos, while the Scherzo compensates for an initial (and marginal) lack of impetus with its raptly expressive Trio then coursing surge towards an implacable close. Nor is the slow movement unduly over-weighted – so enabling its episodes of bittersweet evocation to register as fully as the wearied resignation into which it subsides. The finale duly caps this performance with a visceral onward drive (as in the central fugato) that leads inexorably to a powerful culmination, then an epilogue whose relative expanse is justified through its arrival at a benediction the more enduring for having been so methodically and affectingly achieved.
Bělohlávek’s association with Fairy Tale goes back even further. He recorded it with the Prague Symphony near the outset of his career (8/80), while his second account had a greater sophistication but less character. This new version brings an inspired synthesis with its ravishing love music (Jiří Vodička’s violin solos effortless in their pathos), succeeded by a playful Intermezzo and plangent Funeral Music, then the finale strives heroically toward its ultimate transcendence.
The Czech Philharmonic give their collective all; with the best sound Decca has yet achieved at the Rudolfinum, this can be placed next to Charles Mackerras as the finest modern Asrael. If these are indeed Bělohlávek’s last studio recordings, a plea for the commercial release of the Barbican performance of Dvořák’s Requiem, which was also his final concert appearance.