“König coaxed high-quality playing from all sections of the orchestra”

  • By Christoph König
  • 13 May, 2015

Suk’s symphony Asrael is not an easy listen but BBC National Orchestra of Wales delivers a fine performance

By Peter Collins

The musicians performed the piece at BBC Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff

Suk Talich Novak

On a gloriously sunny early May evening in Cardiff Bay one would hope not to encounter the Archangel of Death. But that is what the audience at this stimulating concert at BBC Hoddinott Hall did as they listened to an assured performance of Czech composer Josef Suk’s Symphony No 2 in C minor, Asrael. Composed after the deaths of his mentor and father-in-law Dvorak and then his wife, Otilie, the symphony is a study in grief and a contemplation on death. It is not easy to listen to, but when it is played by a fine orchestra like the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under German conductor Christoph König it has its rewards. Asrael is often identified with the Archangel of Death in Hebrew, Sikhism lore, as well as Islam. He is the angel who separates the soul from the body at death. The symphony, then, is not for those of a delicate or optimistic disposition. It is in two parts with four of its five movements being marked either Andante or Adagio. The other movement is marked Vivace, but it is hardly vivacious or a cause for dancing in the streets. There were a number of young children in the audience who, not surprisingly, began fidgeting long before the performance was over. That said, several adults, me included, were shifting uneasily in their seats as we were taken on a journey of often nightmarish despair. There is much in the symphony to remind the listener of Dvorak, with quotations from, for example, from that composer’s Requiem and his opera Rusalka. But in the end it is a creation from Suk’s heart and soul and, perhaps, his masterpiece.

König coaxed high-quality playing from all sections of the orchestra, but particularly the strings in a performance whose clarity and energy was deeply impressive. König is known for his thoughtful programming, and it was interesting that he coupled the Suk with the Brahms Violin Concerto, which took up the first half of the concert. Brahms enjoyed an important friendship with the violinist Joachim. It might not have been as crucial as the relationship between Suk and Dvorak, but it did produce what remains one of the four great German violin concertos. Here it was played by the young American-Korean violinist Esther Yoo, It was a committed, commanding performance, full of passion and vivacity. Yoo was recently named a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. Judging by this fine performance, we can expect to hear much more of her.

Back to Overview
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