Hrůša Conducts Suk’s “Asrael” Symphony

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SUK: Symphony No. 2 in c min., Op. 27, “Asrael” / Bavarian Radio Orch.; Jakub Hrůša, cond / BR Klassik BRK900188 (live: Munich, October 18-20, 2018)

In a world where everyone goes gaga over Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert symphonies, the sprawling musical canvas that is Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony gets short shrift. True, there are 11 other recordings out there, of which the best in my view is the classic 1967 account by Karel Ančerl, one of those conductors who never received his just due from collectors and critics, but in the concert hall it is only a very occasional visitor.

Here we have a new account by Jakob Hrůša, one of the younger generation of Czech composers (he was born in 1981, so at the time of recording he was but 37), and like the other more modern digital readings it has a warmer, richer sound than Ančerl’s classic account. Each of the five movements is longer, and thus conducted slower, than the Ančerl recording; the complete performance clocks in at 51:25 compared to Ančerl’s 46:24, and the latter’s CD also includes Iša Krejči’s interesting Serenata whereas Hrůša has no filler work on his CD.

Despite the slower tempi, Hrůša does not lack for excitement in the faster passages. I think you really do need to be Czech to give this music the kind of bite it needs, and the astonishing warmth of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra’s lower strings—and the powerful thump of the tympani—do come across better here. In many respects, then, this is a fine reading.

I was less convinced, however, by Hrůša’s constant decelerendos and rallentandos in the slow sections. This approach almost makes the music sound stylistically schizophrenic, as if Suk had chosen to write a symphony with multiple mood swings. In addition, it softens his musical message, which I also feel is wrong. It’s perfectly fine to convey emotion in those slow passages, as Ančerl did, but quite another thing to have the music wallow in bathos. This is particularly true in the slow second movement, which has little forward momentum in Hrůša’s hands but rather floats across the mind like ambient classical. Of course, this is sort of a trend nowadays in performance style of Romantic composers, even late Romantics like Suk who was clearly thinking in terms of more advanced harmonic constructions and shifting chord positions. Just recall how often Mahler has been softened in recent decades, not to mention Brahms. The Brahms symphony recordings of Weingartner, Rodziński, Munch and Toscanini almost seem to come from another planet, not merely from the previous century.

If, however, you buy into this concept of Asrael, you will undoubtedly be pleased by Hrůša’s reading. The recorded sound is quite forward and natural insofar as acoustics are concerned if a tad bit claustrophobic. I give it three fish: better than some but not as good as others.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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