Josef Suk's Asrael Symphony has had a checkered fate on recordings. The 1952 version coupled Vaclav Talich's passionate interpretation with the Czech Philharmonic's intense playing, creating a performance of shattering emotional power in spite of monaural sound so cavernous it seemed as if the recording must have taken place in an airplane hanger in Antarctica. Vaclav Neumann's 1982 reading with the same orchestra essentially copied the tone and tenor of Talich's account, but with vastly less passion and intensity. The third Asrael, Libor Pesek's 1990 recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, is basically a better copy of Talich's than Neumann's, while the fourth, from 1991, with Jirí Belohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic, gets closer to Talich's greatness than Pesek, but still isn't all the way there. The fifth, Vladimir Valek's 1992 version with the Prague Philharmonic is fatally tedious, and the sixth, Evgeny Svetlanov's 1993 reading with the State Symphony Orchestra, is spectacularly wrong-headed. The seventh Asrael, Rafael Kubelik's magisterial 1981 recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony (released only in 1993), is a great performance, nearly as moving as Talich's. The eighth, Peter Schneider's 1996 recording with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, is wildly miscast.
Now, all those accounts -- the good, the great, and the awful -- can be put to the side. None can compare with this stunning 2008 recording with Claus Peter Flor leading the Malaysian Philharmonic. In many ways, Flor and the Malaysian musicians have created the anti-Talich Asrael. Instead of warm, sweet strings set in a lushly colorful ensemble, the Kuala Lumpur strings are lean and incisive, and the ensemble is sharp and pointed, with clean winds, clear brass, and crisp percussion. Flor's textures are transparent: one can hear the inner lines with amazing clarity. His balances are lucid, and the voice leading is exemplary. There has never been so translucent an account of the score. Flor and the Malaysian Philharmonic bring just as much passion and intensity to their performance as Talich and the Czech Philharmonic, and the cumulative emotional force of the Malaysian account is arguably equal to the Czech version. Thankfully, some things have changed. BIS' super audio recording is vivid, vital, and astoundingly immediate. Whether in the long run this performance will hold up as well as the Talich is unknowable, but it will be interesting to see if subsequent Asraels show the influence of Flor's post-Romantic approach to the work.