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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Asrael Symphony in C minor. Op 27 (1905-06) [57:34]
Iša KREJČI (1904-1968)
Serenata für Orchester (1950) [16:49]
Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden/Karel Ančerl
rec. 19 May 1967, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden. ADD
SWR CLASSIC SWR19055CD [74:54]

Karel Ančerl (1908 - 1973) is greatly admired by those who came to know him from the LPs he recorded with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on the Supraphon label and a number of records he made with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for Philips. He is without doubt one of the most important interpreters of Czech music, as his discography testifies. It’s rather strange that he never made a commercial recording of Asrael for Supraphon. It would have fitted perfectly into their catalogue. This radio recording by the Südwestfunk-Orchester is a very welcome addition to the Ančerl catalogue and the performance of this great symphony really is exceptional.

The tragic Asrael Symphony, which incorporates a motif from Dvořák’s own Requiem, commemorates the death of Suk’s father-in-law, Dvořák, in 1904 and his young wife who succumbed to heart disease in 1905 aged 27. Asrael is the Angel of Death who separates the soul from the body at the behest of Allah in the folk mythology of Shi’ite Islam. The work was completed in 1906. The Asrael Symphony is a huge work consisting of 5 movements.

The opening Andante sostenuto is an epic movement that presents an unforgettable death motif. There is a compelling but often grim feeling to this music but it really does sweep you off your feet. The Andante, which follows the Andante sostenuto without a break, is a dirge that has a Mahlerian sound world to it. There’s an uncomfortable eeriness in this music. It’s dreamlike and incredibly disturbing and scary to listen to. The uneasiness evaporates as the third movement, a scherzo-like Vivace, commences, again without a break. This is no ordinary scherzo, though. It’s no joke. It’s animated and fleet of foot but underneath the surface there is still a deep sense of grief. These three movements comprise Part I.

Part II is inspired by the composer’s late wife, Otilie. The Adagio is a gentle lament featuring some moving passages for a solo violin and bassoon. This is tragic, passionate music full of angst and regret for the composer’s sad loss. The last movement, Adagio e maestoso, is a touching but thrilling conclusion to this great symphony. The death motif from the opening movement returns but is now transformed and the final coda perhaps finds the composer finally coming to terms with the double blow he had to endure: the death of his wife and of Dvořák.

The Südwestfunk-Orchester is on supreme form and they play with the edge of seat commitment one associates with a live performance. The level of electricity is astonishing and the recording is clear, involving and well balanced. Good analogue sound from 1967 makes for an issue that is not merely “historic”. I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with the recording. The performance itself is outstanding and needs to be heard.

Following such an exhausting aural experience as the Asrael, the Serenata by the Czech composer, Iša Krejči offers some refreshing relief. It consists of three short movements written in a neoclassical style. It’s very light-hearted, witty and attractive. A pleasant enough filler, but the Asrael Symphony is the main reason for buying this marvellous disc.

John Whitmore
Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)



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