, January 2009
This is the first totally non-Czech recording of Suk’s tragic masterpiece, and it’s brilliant. In case you don’t already know the story, Suk wrote this harrowing, five-movement symphony to expiate the pain and grief of the double loss of his wife and father-in-law (who happened to be Dvořák), both of whom died within about a year of each other. Asrael is the angel of death, and the music refers directly to Dvořák’s Requiem (in its second movement) and seemingly to Slavonic church music as well. While often dark in tone, it is by no means lacking in color or contrast. The third movement reveals Suk as a master of the creepy scherzo to rival the Mahler of the Seventh Symphony, while the transfigured major-key ending is anything but facile, and achieves precisely the catharsis that Suk intended.
This performance is magnificent. Asrael has been recorded before, and very well, by most major Czech conductors, including Talich, Neumann, Pesek, Kubelik, and (less successfully) Belohlávek. Ashkenazy’s performance here is as fine as any of them; indeed, he brings more sheer excitement to the finale than any other conductor on disc, and the playing of the Helsinki Philharmonic gives nothing away to the Czechs in the Talich and Neumann versions. Ashkenazy also enjoys far and away the best engineering: the coda of the first movement, with its hammering bass drum, wailing violins, and menacing brass, never has sounded more harrowing. And it’s important that this music gets played by non-Czech forces in order to enter the general repertoire. It certainly deserves to be much more than a merely local specialty. If you love the symphonies of, say, Mahler or Tchaikovsky, then you really must hear Asrael.