Josef Suk (1874-1935)

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Concert Hall, Helsinki Music Centre, Finland

1898: Josef Suk marries Otilie Dvořák. 1904: Suk’s now-father-in law dies. 1905: Otilie also passes away. The result in musical terms was Suk’s C-minor Asrael Symphony, completed in 1906 in memoriam of both his wife and his mentor.

Asrael (the Old Testament angel of death) is a five-movement, hour-long Symphony of profound and personal import. This is music that laments and erupts emotionally, if never self-pityingly or gratuitously; rather it is strong and defiant in the face of adversity, suggesting epic and fateful imagery, also nostalgia; not obviously beautiful maybe if deeply affecting, music that can be ethereal, fantastical and sardonic, the radiant conclusion (harp-decorated, and the previously brazen brass motif now subdued) suggesting that composing this Symphony was an exorcism for Suk.

Leonard Slatkin believes in every note of this elusive if compelling score and led a superb performance, the Helsinki Philharmonic notably excellent and committed (expressive violin, cello and woodwind solos), complemented by first-class sound and picture.

The concert opened with Cindy McTee’s runaway Circuits, a dazzling showpiece that scampered brilliantly, with rhythmic precision, not least from the HPO’s pianist and percussionists, although the whole ensemble was clearly enjoying this particular ‘short ride’. The composer was present.

Then Mozart, K482, Piano Concerto 22, opening in E-flat ceremony, pointed and detailed from the Orchestra. Angela Hewitt’s contribution was fluent and stylish (as were the unidentified cadenzas), first among equals if with a tendency for the ear to sometimes alight more on the accompaniment than on the solo rendition. The slow movement had a particular eloquence (graced by characterful woodwind solos) and the Finale enjoyed a moderate tempo to reveal its bounce and wit, whereas its central minuet, featuring solo strings, became a nightcap serenade.

For an encore, Hewitt presented Robert Schumann’s song ‘Widmung’ as transcribed by Franz Liszt, a dedication of love.

This concert remains available here

A recommended Asrael recording