Friday 17 October 2014

Salomon Orchestra in Suk's Asrael Symphony

Guy Johnston - photo Ben Wright
Guy Johnston
photo Ben Wright
The Salomon Orchestra's concert on Tuesday 14 October 2014 at St John's Smith Square, had an all Czech flavour. Conducted by Philip Hesketh, the first half consisted of Dvorak's Cello Concerto with Guy Johnston as the soloist, and in the second half the massive Asrael Symphony by Josef Suk,  Dvorak's pupil and son-in-law. Suk's music is infrequently performed nowadays and the Salomon Orchestra performance was a welcome opportunity to make the piece's acquaintance.

Dvorak's Cello Concerto was written in 1894-95 and he commenced writing it when he was still in the USA but the work is tinged with home-sickness as well as a tribute to the memory of his recently deceased sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova, née Čermakova with whom Dvorak had been in love. (See my review of the film Dvorak in Love).  The piece is one of the composer's best known works though it does not always get the stylistic attention that it deserves in performance, with performers veering towards Bad Brahms.

Guy Johnston, Philip Hesketh and the orchestra were full alert to the work's Czech feel, with a lovely combination of lyrical melody and crisply infectious rhythms. Before the concert started one of my companions had asked, half jokingly, whether you could dance to it! All the performers ensured that you certainly could. Rhythms were sprung and crisp, combined with a lovely lyrical flexibility. Johnston gave a poised and lyrical performance. As a performer he was passionate without overdoing the romanticism of the part or stretching the phrases too much, Dvorak's classical lines were always present.

Supporting him, the orchestra was on fine form, playing with lovely strong focused sound and firm tone. Dvorak's orchestration in his later works often involves a lovely layering of ideas, each one memorable. This requires a nice ear for detail, and Hesketh drew a nicely detailed and finely played performance from the orchestra. The second movement was particularly rewarding with its solos from the woodwind.

Hesketh was a fine accompanist, giving his soloist space yet keeping the overall shape of the music. There was a sense of collegiality about the whole performance, perhaps partly owing to the fact that Johnston's father was playing clarinet in the orchestra.

Josef Suk's Asrael Symphony was begun as a memorial to Dvorak who died in 1904. Suk was not only Dvorak's pupil but was married to his daughter Otilie. Suk combined a career as composer with that as a performer in the Czech String Quartet, as well as being a teacher himself. The symphony was planned on a large scale in five moments with triple woodwind. The final movement was going to be a set of variations as a memorial tribute to Dvorak. But during the writing of the fourth movement, Suk's beloved wife died and the symphony also became a memorial to her. Suk scrapped the planned final two movements and write entirely new material.

Whilst there were some hints of Dvorak in the details of the music, the symphony's sound world rather more evoked Suk's contemporaries such as Mahler and Strauss. The period Suk was writing the work saw Mahler working on his sixth and seventh symphonies, whilst 1904 was also the period that Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica appeared. But in the opening movement of the Asrael Symphony I also felt the influence of Tchaikovsky's symphonies.

There was a certain sprawling feel to the work, as Suk eschewed tightly closed classical forms in favour of looser, thematically related sections. He seems to have been content to sprawl and Mahler's comment about a symphony containing the world seemed relevant here. The piece also had a restless nervousness about it, with a very distinctive sound world which was less richly romantic than the music of Mahler and Strauss with more of a feeling of tenseness in the musical material.

The Scherzo, which comes just before the new material written in memory of Otilie, starts out conventionally enough but instead of a repeat of the opening material Suk launches into new pastures as if he was conscious of the changes being wrought to the symphony and to his personal life.

The symphony is a big piece, without the sense of familiarity of the Dvorak and there was a sense of the orchestra being stretched. But the performance was superbly confident with a lovely sense of style.

This is the second concert this year in which the Salomon Orchestra has given us a welcome opportunity to hear rarely performed symphonic repertoire. Their next concert, on 10 February 2015, is still late romantic though with a slightly less esoteric programme with music by Elgar and Ravel when they will be conducted by Graham Ross, the director of music at Clare College, Cambridge.
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