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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael Symphony, Op. 27 (1905/06) [59.44]
A Summer’s Tale, Op. 29 (1908/09) [49.44]
Anatoly LIADOV (1855-1914)
The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 (1909) [9.15]
Josef SUK
The Ripening, Op. 34 (1912/17) [38.10]
Tale of a Winter’s Evening, Op. 9 (1894, rev. 1926) [14.50]
Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin/Kirill Petrenko
rec. live, 2002-06, Komische Oper Berlin, Germany
CPO 555 009-2 [3 CDs: 59.44 + 59.00 + 53.10]

In a hastily arranged press conference on 22 June 2015 Kirill Petrenko was announced as Simon Rattle’s successor, the new chief conductor designate of the Berliner Philharmoniker and artistic director of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation. After a first round of voting that ended in impasse the self-governing orchestra voted by a large majority for the Russian conductor to take over the biggest job in classical music. Petrenko made his conducting debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2006 with works by Rachmaninov and Bartók and has to date conducted three concert programmes with them. On the Berliner Philharmoniker ‘Digital Concert Hall’ there are two complete concerts that can be purchased for streaming. First from June 2009, a programme of Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 and Elgar Symphony No. 2. Secondly, on December 2012 Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, Scriabin Počme de l’extase and Rudi Stephan’s Music for Violin and Orchestra and Music for Orchestra.

Notable have been Petrenko’s conducting of a 2009 revival of John Schlesinger’s production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House and in 2013 Frank Castorf’s controversial new Wagner Ring Cycle at the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth. In 2014 at Munich I recall composer Rodion Shchedrin explaining to me in an interview how Petrenko his fellow countryman was excelling in his post as music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper from the 2013/14 season. Clearly Petrenko has been concentrating primarily on opera so it’s not surprising that his recorded legacy on CD is remarkably small compared to many conductors of his generation. A browse on Amazon shows a live Pfitzner ‘Palestrina’ with Frankfurter Opern und Museumsorchester on Oehms Classics, a Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 with Dejan Lazic and London Philharmonic Orchestra on Channel Classics, and most conspicuous of all three live CDs of orchestral works by Josef Suk with the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin on CPO released separately in 2004 (777 001-2), 2004 (777 364-2) and 2008 (777 174-2). Astutely CPO has quickly re-issued the Suk CDs as a single box set reviewed here. Incidentally it was in his post as general music director of the Komische Oper Berlin serving 2002/07 that Petrenko became familiar to Berlin audiences.

The first of the live Suk CDs was recorded by Petrenko at the Komische Oper in 2002 and contains a single work the Asrael Symphony scored for large orchestra that I consider his magnum opus. The Křečovice (Czech Republic) born composer did his best work with large orchestral forces and wrote Asrael named after the Old Testament Angel of Death which is in effect a requiem in memory of both his father-in-law and teacher Antonín Dvořák (d. 1904) and his wife Otylka, Dvořák’s eldest daughter (d. 1905). In five movements and taking almost an hour to perform Suk commenced writing Asrael in 1905, completing the score in 1906 with its premičre taking place in 1907 at Prague. A heartfelt work composed out of unbearable suffering one senses the intensity Petrenko develops in transporting the souls of the deceased on their journey to the blissful afterlife. Petrenko digs deep into the score and out of the underlying normality creates a strong sense of discontent together with a curious sense of drifting, as if unable to settle. I especially admired the playing of the Vivace movement a turbulent Scherzo with a darting impish section like a danse macabre that increases in intensity. Petrenko ensures that the Finale: Adagio Maestoso is as warmly soothing and peaceful as one can imagine.

CD two features A Summer’s Tale, Op. 29 a substantial symphonic poem for large orchestra taking almost fifty minutes in performance. The score is sometimes considered to be an extension, a second part, of the Asrael Symphony. Slowly overcoming his personal grief from the double tragedy Suk composed A Summer’s Tale in 1908/09 inspired by his love of nature and its healing potential particularly in the summer season. Descriptive titles have been given to each of the five movements but it’s not entirely clear who wrote them. Employing progressive impressionist qualities in a post-Romantic framework this heartfelt and intense paean to nature sees Petrenko responding to the consoling qualities of the score with warm and engaging compassion. Remarkable is the fourth movement titled ‘The Power of Illusion’ a fantasy world suggestive of spirits, goblins, spooks and wizards. In the final movement ‘Night’ marked Adagio, Petrenko ensures that an eerie underlying calm prevails despite a few episodes of hectic nocturnal activity. It’s a magnificent movement of colourful reverie.

The second disc also includes a work by Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov (or Liadov) The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 a fairy-tale picture for orchestra. Studying under Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Lyadov wrote The Enchanted Lake in 1909. Lyadov wrote several tone poems of which Baba Yaga, Op. 56 and Kikimora, Op. 63 are especially celebrated yet I believe he wrote nothing finer than The Enchanted Lake. Lasting just over nine minutes this is a favourite work of mine but it’s tricky to position in a concert programme with many conductors feeling its tranquil mood unsuitable to open or close a concert. Marked Andante this is glorious mood painting that Petrenko takes slower than I was expecting yet it works splendidly. Petrenko’s reading is as excellent as I have heard, demonstrating the conductor’s outstanding capacity for subtle tonal shading.

The third disc comprises two attractive Suk scores The Ripening and Tale of a Winter’s Eve. Suk worked on The Ripening a symphonic poem, Op. 34 between 1912/17 and a number of commentators regard the score as the pinnacle of his career. It’s a six movement masterpiece for large orchestra taking almost forty minutes. Covering a range of human and artistic emotions Karel Srom helpfully gave each of the movements an evocative title. However, the concluding part of the poem ‘Zrání’ by Antonín Sova printed at the head of the score has not been quoted in the notes. The work concludes with a substantial fugue and a hymn of affirmation sung by an off-stage women’s choir. Unaccredited in the annotation one might assume the singing is by the Chor der Komischen Oper Berlin. Petrenko and his players are clearly at home in this opulent orchestral score with its radiantly sensuous display of colourful sound and the flow of its primarily rapturous moods. Striking is Petrenko’s reading of the third movement titled ‘Love’ which reveals itself with rapturous passages for a solo violin gloriously surrounded by passionate orchestral playing.

An overture Tale of a Winter’s Evening, Op. 9 from 1894 was premičred in Prague the following year. It seems clear that the inspiration behind the work was the Shakespeare play The Winter’s Tale. Suk together with Jaroslav Vogel made revisions to the score in 1926. Petrenko and his Berlin players are in total sympathy with this engaging score, intensely colourful, passionate and full of adventure. A highlight is the stunning and stirring extended climax around points 11.48-12.59 (track 7) towards the conclusion of the work.

Recorded live at the Komische Oper Berlin across the three albums the engineering team for CPO has provided a consistent quality of sound with good clarity and balance. I did notice a very slight metallic feel on CD 1 with a touch of congestion in the forte passages but nothing to worry about. Audience applause is contained at the conclusion of Asrael but not on any of the other works on CDs 2 and 3. I could detect little extraneous noise on any of these live recordings. No problems with the booklet essays in the original CD releases that are extremely comprehensive.

Under Kirill Petrenko’s leadership praise is due to the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin for its playing of engaging freshness, and passionate intensity. This excellent reissued set of Suk’s most notable orchestral works is self-recommending, aptly demonstrating Petrenko’s excellence and assured control on the podium. On this evidence the good portents for the Berliner Philharmoniker look guaranteed.

Michael Cookson



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