Karel Ancerl in 1957 delivers his passionate rendering of Suk’s autobiographical Second Symphony.
SUK: Symphony No. 2 in c minor, Op. 27 “Asrael”; KREJCI: Serenata for Orchestra – Southwest Orchestra of Baden-Baden/ Karel Ancerl – SWR Classic SWR19055CD, 74:54 (2/9/18) Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Music of decidedly contrasting temper, led by Czech master Karel Ancerl (1908-1973), graces this disc, taken from the 19 May 1967 session of the SouthWest Radio in Baden-Baden. This is the only available official recording of Karel Ancerl’s conducting Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony (1907; rev. 1919), although a version of the conductor’s leading the Cleveland Orchestra exists. Asrael—the name taken from the Angel of Death in the folk mythology of Shi’ite Islam, who separates the soul from the body at the behest of Allah—remains central to Josef Suk’s oeuvre and an outstanding work in the Czech music repertoire. Suk had studied composition with Dvorak at the Prague Conservatory, 1891-92, and had fallen in love with Dvorak’s daughter Otilie (1878-1905). The tragic symphony—which incorporates a motif from Dvorak’s own Requiem—celebrates the deaths of both Dvorak (d. 1 May 1904) and his beloved daughter, who succumbed to heart disease 6 June 1905.
The Asrael Symphony exerts a huge canvas, in five movements, often contrapuntal and harmonically intricate, given to “periodic” pedal points that hang on the precipice of bitonality. Later, for the early 1920s performances with Vaclav Talich, Suk made alterations in the orchestration, adding a fifth and sixth horn. What occurs, cites Talich, is that the new sonority “increases the mellowness of the music’s power.” The composer Novak exclaimed that with Asrael, “the genre of the modern Czech symphony was created.” The first movement, Andante sostenuto, conveys both sweep and transparency, on a par with Mahler but without the “program” elements. The use of a double tritone as a “death motif” follows its presence in the fairy tale of Suk, Raduz und Mahulena. The colossal gestures become even more significant when we realize – courtesy of the notes left by Ancerl’s secretary – the degree to which Ancerl compels his forces to stay “strictly within tempo.” The Andante projects an extended dirge, once more easily competitive with Mahler. Three minutes into the music, the pizzicato figures join high winds and strings for an eerie dance that would grace a scene from Ingmar Bergman or Murnau. The SWR trumpets and trombones provide a haunted specter, if ever there were a musical realization from Poe.
The Vivace movement seems a direct tribute to the Salvonic genius of Dvorak, the composer’s esteemed father-in-law. A kind of ironic Totentanz, the movement conveys occasional, sweet reminiscences of joy in life. The grim brio of the music will eventually descend into the bass. Cold tremolos begin the Trio section, featuring the piccolo. The music swells with grievous intensity. The Scherzo’s da capo proceeds both to recollections of the Andante and to a highly animated, Slavonic dance that ends fugato furioso.
The Adagio—which opens Part II—entirely means to portray Odilie in visionary, surreal light. Solo violin and bassoon will, alternately and simultaneously, sing the soul of Odilie’s pure spirit and lament her passing. A palpable angst travels through the rocking figures, a lullaby tainted by intimations of mortality. The last movement, Adagio e maestoso, could be analogous to poetic moments in John Donne, denying Death any pride of purpose in the lover’s ability to reconcile himself to the burden of enduring loss. Chorale motifs clash with heart-wrenching, vicious romps of anguish and irony. Such a concentration of perversely competitive sentiments occupies the world of T.S. Eliot, William Blake, and the late Beethoven quartets. We have here a towering performance of a symphonic work that still has not found its true significance among the active scores of our repertory.
The 1950 Serenata of Isa Krejci (1904-1968), by contrast, seems whimsical and carefree, joyful in its mastery orchestral syntax and brassy virtuosity. A combination of Poulenc’s breezy cosmopolitanism and Einem’s structural confidence, the piece conveys humor and confidence, with a second movement Andante quasi Allegretto for strings alone that bespeaks a lyric temper. Neoclassic and rambunctious, the last movement Presto has the muscular vitality we might ascribe to Walter Piston or David Diamond, had we not known of its Bohemian roots.