- Symfonie c moll = Symphony in C minor = Symphonie c-Moll "Asrael" op. 27 by Josef Suk
The first edition of Suk's Asrael Symphony was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1907 in a full score (Partitur-Bibliothek 2069) and orchestral parts, followed by an arrangement for piano four hands by Roman Veselý in 1912. A completely new edition of the score was published in Prague by Státní hudební vydavatelství (SHV) in 1965, edited by Karel Šrom, but, like the first edition, this has been out of print for many years. In 2006, the 1965 edition was used as the basis for a study score issued by Musikproduktion Höflich in Munich (study score 494 in its Repertoire Explorer series). Now we have a brand new critical edition from Bärenreiter, edited by Jonáš Scrupulously prepared and beautifully printed, this is cause for rejoicing.
The first performance of Asrael was given at the Prague National Theatre on 3 February 1907, conducted by Karel Kovařovic. The journal Dalibor (16 February 1907) praised its expressive variety, its colorful orchestration, and its form, concluding that Asrael was "the pinnacle of Czech symphonic works" (p. ix). Emanuel Chvála, writing in the Prague paper Politik (5 February 1907), declared "It's the most modern music we have, and is likely to be among the most enduring" (p. ix). Later that year, the journal Dalibor reminded readers that it left a "profound, devastating and indeed astounding impression" on the audience (p. ix). Kovařovic repeated the work on 24 February, pairing it—as he had at the premiere—with Dvoř Te Deum.
The Czech Philharmonic played it for the first time five years later, on 7 January 1912, at its inaugural concert in the Smetana Hall of the newly opened Obecni dům in Prague (one of the treasures of Czech art nouveau). On this occasion Vilém Zemánek conducted an all Suk program concluding with Asrael. It has remained in the orchestra's repertoire ever since. Václav Talich, a close friend of Suk and his most devoted advocate, first conducted it on 17 October 1919, and conducted it regularly until 1944, as well as making the first recording of the work in 1952. Other Czech orchestras also took up the work, and among early performances by non-Czech forces, one notable account was that given by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam conducted by Willem Mengelberg on 3 January 1909. Although a healthy tally of performances have taken place from the 1950s until the present, Asrael is most likely to be encountered on the programs of Czech orchestras. Despite the impressive advocacy of conductors such as Rafael Kubelík, Karel Anč Charles Mackerras, Libor Peš Hrůša, Vladimir Jurowski, and Kirill Petrenko, it has still not quite established a permanent foothold in the international repertory.
The publication of this new edition will, I hope, encourage more conductors and orchestras to take up a work that many (including the present author) regard as one of the cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire in the years before World War I (alongside the likes of Mahler, Elgar and Sibelius) as well as being the finest Czech symphony since Dvořák. It was the death of Dvořák (Suk's father-in-law and [End Page 166] teacher) in 1904, followed a year later by the death of his daughter Otilie (Suk's wife) that provided the melancholy inspiration for Asrael, which takes its name from Azrael, the angel who separates the soul from the body at death in the religions of Judaism and Islam. Suk's profound emotional investment in this work is one of its most compelling features—it's an exceptionally moving piece as well as being musically engrossing—a nobly-conceived Requiem...