Jiří Bělohlávek / Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Suk: Asrael Symphony; Fairy Tale

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The great conductor Jiri Belohlavek left a large number of unreleased recordings upon his death in 2017. One can hardly fault the Decca label for continuing to mine this lode, for the material is of generally high quality, often extremely high. Take this recording of the Asrael Symphony in C major, Op. 27. Belohlavek recorded this work several times, but this version is well worth having on its own merits. One reason is the presence of Pohadka, Op. 16 (here translated as "Fairy Tale," and indeed the tale of Raduz and Mahulena is a well-known one among Czechs), a charming work in itself, and one that makes a telling contrast in its graceful Funeral Music movement (sample to hear the Czech Philharmonic in classic form) with the grim symphony about the Angel of Death. The latter is the work of someone who had just felt the swipe of death's paw; Antonín Dvorák, Suk's teacher, and Otilie, Suk's wife and Dvorák's daughter, both died during the work's composition. Belohlavek takes the work a good deal faster than most of his peers, faster even than the classic, but sonically dated, 1952 version by Vaclav Talich with the same orchestra. It works. It feels edgy, and gets to something about Suk's mature music. Despite Dvorák's towering influence, it sounds very little like Dvorák. This symphony could have been (and sometimes is) made to sound like Mahler, especially in its grim finale, but instead it is given a genuinely tragic quality. Supraphon's engineers know the Rudolfinium in Prague like the backs of their hands. Highly recommended.

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