Suk Symphony, Op 14; Ripening
There can’t be many orchestral works in the repertoire that better approximate, in musical terms, the blossoming of life in the face of conflict, even tragedy. Cast in seven interlinking but contrasted sections, Zrání (The Ripening) opens like early sunlight kissing the corn, then proceeds through storm, stress and moments of the greatest tenderness (the beginning of the Adagio third section) to hard-earned serenity. It seems to me that the trick with The Ripening is to let it unfold naturally, allowing each billowing episode its due, guiding and nurturing rather than impeding the flow in any way. Belohlávek does just that and the BBC Symphony respond not only with some superb playing but with a range of dynamics that fully tests the skills of the Chandos team (Brian Pidgeon was the recording producer), including a beautifully balanced chorus towards the end of the work. B∆lohlávek’s nearest rivals are Libor Pesek in Liverpool, generally excellent but not quite as compelling, and, most famously, Václav Talich’s 1954-56 Supraphon sessions with the Czech Philharmonic, which, because of Talich’s raw emotions at the time, were completed by his young colleague Zdenek Bílek. That remains an incomparably moving document but Belohlávek’s passion and sense of momentum grant a new generation of listeners a credible modern benchmark.
The coupling, Suk’s Symphony in E, predates The Ripening (1912-17) by around 18 years and although attractive in its own right (a little like a melding of Dvorák and Mahler) isn’t on quite the exalted level of the later work. Again, Belohlávek directs an excellent performance, idiomatic as well as atmospheric and especially effective in the two middle movements, which possibly contain the score’s best music. The version I have on my own shelves by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Neumann (Supraphon – nla) is broader than Belohlávek’s by no less than six minutes, although, to be fair, it does have some nicely pointed instrumental solos in its favour. Still, this well paced newcomer leaves the stronger impression overall and proves a worthy addition to an admirable Suk series.