Classical Reissue Reviews

SUK: Symphony in C Minor “Asrael”; BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem – BBC Symphony Orch./ Jiri Belohlavek – Supraphon (2 CDs)

The Prague concert of June 1, 2008 celebrates conductor Belohlavek’s mastery of the two nations in his musical bloodstream, Czechoslovakia and Britain.

Published on March 24, 2013

SUK: Symphony in C Minor “Asrael”; BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem – BBC Symphony Orch./ Jiri Belohlavek – Supraphon (2 CDs)

SUK: Symphony in C Minor, Op. 27 “Asrael”; BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 – BBC Symphony Orch./ Jiri Belohlavek – Supraphon SU 4095-2 (2 CDs), TT: 83:13 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

Recorded live for the Czech Radio at the concert of the sixty-third Prague Spring International Music Festival in the Smetana Hall of the Municipal House, Prague, 1 June 2008, this fine set captures conductor Jiri Belohlavek (b. 1946) having returned to his native land with his “adopted” BBC Symphony. The theme of the concert makes itself poignantly obvious: the Angel of Death. In the case of Josef Suk, the dread visitation came twofold, with the death of father-in-law Antonin Dvorak in 1904; and then, shortly after, with the death of Suk’s wife Otilka, aged twenty-seven. Suk wrote that “such a misfortune either destroys a man or brings to the surface all the powers dormant in him.” The 1906 C Minor Symphony, named for the Sikh and Hebrew Angel of Death, Asrael, falls into two sections: the struggle of life and death; and a portrait of Otilka, the latter of which ends in a consoling C Major.  Britten’s work, which had its Western debut under John Barbirolli in New York in 1941, originated with a commission from the Japanese government to celebrate their 2600 anniversary of the Empire; but the real motivation came with Britten’s dedicating the work to the memory of his parents. The titles of Sinfonia da Requiem derive from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead in three movements: “Lacrymosa: a slow, marching lament; Dies Irae: a form of the Dance of Death; and Requiem aeternam: the final resolution.”

Since Belohlavek was about to retire from the BBC as Chief Conductor, the BBC meant to perform in his native land to their peak abilities. Often based on – in the mordant cello line that begins the work –  motifs from Dvorak’s own Requiem, Op. 89, the Asrael Symphony has largely dismissed any optimism the work may have contained prior to the news of Otilka’s passing. Much of the music texture, sonority, and counterpoint prefigures Shostakovich in its gloomy tone while resonating in eerie or pompous gestures in the manner of Richard Strauss. The ghoulish atmosphere extends into the Andante, a funeral march subtitled Loss. Trumpets, string pizzicati, and the flute inject their own sense of bleakness. Perhaps the most Mahler-influenced movement, Vivace, introduces two dances, the more dominant of which belongs to Asrael. A solo violin intones lyrical passages that recall bucolic Dvorak. A moment of exultant passion emerges, only to have to yield to the inexorable, now in strict counterpoint. The BBC executes a series of gasping, heart-rending ejaculations of pain and emotional paroxysm, a tempest of brass and tympani effects in bravura style.

Again, emulating and exceeding Mahler, Suk will conclude with two adagios, the first a musical reminiscence of the lamented Otilka. Like the Strauss Ein Heldenleben, the violin (Andrew Haveron) will carry the emotional weight of Otilka’s illumined memory. Belohlavek “cradles” the movement in a deeply swathed sound that cannot deny the incursion of darkness – via the entry of the bassoon and tremolandi – into this idyll. The second of the concluding slow movements, Adagio e maestoso, wants to question the meaning of life. Suk calls his last movement “stormy and nerve-wracking.” A cry of utmost anguish opens the movement, a series of crushing blows to the spirit, but a skewed chorale emerges from a plethora of broken and vulgar figures, a sense of defiance in the face of a Dantesque whirlwind that redoubles its strokes in the form of a ruffian’s fugato. The move to C Major incurs the notion of “Death and Transfiguration.” Clarinet and harp rise from the emotional rubble and send their shimmering rays of conciliation throughout the orchestra. The violin seems to project Odilka’s shining spirit in Hollywood fashion, a beacon of light illumined by brass choir. Gradually, the sonic atmosphere dissipates into Eternity, Asrael’s sting no longer an open wound. Warm applause from an ecstatic Prague audience ensues.

Originally meant to celebrate the Mikado Dynasty in Japan, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem expresses his mounting sense of grief over his parent’s loss: “The loss of Mum & Pop, instead of lessening, seems to be more & more apparent every day.” The Japanese government, by the way, rejected the composition as inappropriate to their national character; besides, the clear anti-war sentiment would be antithetical to the imperialistic aims of Japan at the time.

The Sinfonia flows without interruption, its separate movements an indication of mood and affect, not liturgy. The BBC bring a decided passion to the opening, strings, winds, brass, and percussion ablaze. Nodding in several respects to Mahler’s influence, the Sinfonia shifts key and mass of ensemble with relative frequency, the Lacrymosa’s moving from D Minor to D Major while juxtaposing large bodies of instruments against chamber-music ensembles. Belohlavek instills a dire sense of terror in the Dies Irae, a world war compressed, Allegro con fuoco, into five minutes. Some of the interplay reminds us of the Peter Grimes interludes. Three flutes invoke what one publisher called “a slumber song” that opens the Requiem aeternam. Composure and benediction reign as consolations to a world badly in need of spiritual direction. Belohlavek, like his great predecessor in Prague, Rafael Kubelik, has a great sympathy for this music, a score he performs for its universal appeal to our common humanity.

—Gary Lemco

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