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Josef Suk: Asrael / Mackerras, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Suk / Cpo / Mackerras
Release Date: 02/22/2011 
Label:  Supraphon   Catalog #: 4043   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Josef Suk
Conductor:  Sir Charles Mackerras
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

I was always intrigued by the potential of Suk conducted by Mackerras (1925-2010). There were fewer discs in which this conductor championed Suk than he did Janacek or Dvorak. The present one, issued posthumously, was presumably not intended. We should not forget a number of Suk discs he made by design, as it were: A Summer's Tale/ and Fantastic Scherzo (Decca 4666 443-2) and Fantasy (Decca 460 316-2) each with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

As for this project it seems to have been touched with gold from the outset. There are a few minor imprecisions of ensemble but these are the usual artefacts of a live concert event. In fact Mackerras’s Asrael – or this one - is revelatory. He makes it
Read more sound quite voluptuously Straussian for such a gaunt work especially in the first movement. He is great at the ambitious sweep and gusty mercurial moods borne along by tempo changes.

It's a work that has been extensively recorded. Suffice to say that of all the many great recordings, the ones I would direct you to hear are the Talich mono and this one by Mackerras. My colleague Brian Wilson mentions that the work has never quite taken hold of him (my words). This Mackerras is the one I would ask him to try. These things are so subjective but Mackerras and Supraphon have done a superb job. This conductor has a very satisfying grip on the Mahlerian gait and breath-control of the piece. He does magnificent things with it as listening to the profoundly moving Adagio shows. This movement even reminded at times of the Korngold symphony from some forty years later. Applause closes the disc.

For all that this is a concert event the stereo spatial effects are very well arrived at – listen to the eldritch almost Mendelssohnian flight of the Vivace.

The recording is unglamorous but satisfying. This is unlike the analogue Decca recordings I had just been experiencing when listening to Ansermet’s legacy Debussy on Newton. Certainly, if you listen to the portentous drums in the finale, there is no softening of life's buffets and nor any sweetening of its desperate tragedy. If this had been written after the Great War we would hardly have been surprised. It could easily serve as a requiem symphony for the trodden down generations.

The notes are by Petr Kadlec who clearly identifies with Mackerras and his Czech legacy. It's a very poignant and informative note.

Mackerras delivers a profoundly moving and completely engaging Asrael superbly recorded - the best modern version.

-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International


Despite his having studied Suk's Asrael Symphony with Vaclav Talich (who knew the composer personally), Charles Mackerras never made a studio recording. Happily, Supraphon was on hand to record this live performance from 2007.

As with other recordings made in a fruitful Indian summer shortly for his death, Mackerras leads the Czech Philharmonic in a powerful, idiomatic performance, full of rich color and depth of feeling that reflects his long experience with this composer. The music's darker moods figure prominently in this reading, perhaps not surprisingly as Mackerras had recently lost his daughter to illness (the death of Suk's wife, as well as that of his father-in-law Dvorák was the impetus for this composition). But the overall mood is mournful rather than angry, and by the end we are left with a sense of hard-won acceptance.

The Czech Philharmonic, having this music practically in its DNA, plays beautifully, rendering Suk's very personal passages with great character. It's perhaps ironic that the strongest competition today comes from artists far afield. Vladimir Ashkenazy's dark and imposing version with the Helsinki Philharmonic and last year's exciting version by the Malaysian Philharmonic led by Claus Peter Flor are both powerfully compelling, with the Flor especially offering more surface excitement than Mackerras (along with spectacular SACD sound). Supraphon's recording, while very good, suffers a bit from the acoustic dampening endemic to live recordings.

Still, there are many passages--the aching strings in the second movement, the phantasmagorical woodwinds--where Mackerras exhibits rare mastery and depth, making his version a must-hear. Strongly recommended.

--Victor Carr Jr, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Symphony in C minor, Op. 27 "Asrael" by Josef Suk
Conductor:  Sir Charles Mackerras
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1905-1906; Prague 
Date of Recording: Live 

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