A Suk Rarity Expresses an Avalanche of Grief

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Suk: Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 7.4.2018. (MSJ)

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77

SukAsrael Symphony in C minor, Op.27

Sometimes in concert programming there is a squeamish fear of getting too heavy. Kudos to everyone involved with this one, for putting substantial works on both program halves, creating an exciting experience. And what’s more, the familiar Brahms Violin Concerto was in the hands of Sergey Khachatryan, one of the most intense violinists currently on the international stage.

Khachatryan’s approach was spacious but with a laser-like focus. He made the most of the first movement’s changes of atmosphere, delving into the shadowy moments in as few violinists do, creating a real odyssey of the soul. By contrast, Julia Fischer gave a more driving, classical rendition with the orchestra in 2014, bolstered by Franz Welser-Möst. Here, conductor Jakub Hrůša matched Khachatryan’s exploratory depth and energy. The slow movement was poised and radiant, while the finale was exhilarating, with the violinist occasionally ripping frayed hairs from his bow. Tonally, Khachatryan wields one of the biggest sounds around. He had no trouble sailing over Brahms’ hefty orchestration, yet he still left an impression of introspection.

Khachatryan seemed to lose himself in exploring the composer’s psychology, and seemed to be much happier in that inner world than in the following roar of ovation. At the end, he did not relish taking bows, the way some attention-hungry performers do. But he did provoke an encore—not a showpiece, but rather something from his native land’s deep past: Havun, Havun, an ancient Armenian spiritual meditation by Grigor Narekatsy (St. Gregory of Narek). Perhaps the music was on Khachatryan’s mind since just a few days prior to this concert, Pope Francis unveiled a new statue of the saint at the Vatican.

Equally concentrated, the second half was far darker. Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony is a brooding, black beast, not encountered often on programs outside of Czechia until recent years. Only done twice previously in Cleveland, by Karel Ančerl in 1971 and Libor Pešek in 1992, Asrael deserves to be heard more often, because it is staggeringly great, though by no means an easy listen.

Suk wrote the hour-long symphony to deal with an avalanche of grief. He was Dvořák’s star pupil, and in time became part of the family by marrying Dvořák’s daughter Otilie. For a few years, Suk’s life must have seemed perfect: a rising young composer with a beloved mentor as father-in-law and a wife that he loved dearly. But in 1904, that all changed. Dvořák died, devastating Suk and his wife. Bereft, the composer decided to pen a memory to his father-in-law, and began working on the symphony during spare moments between tours as a violinist in the Czech Quartet, which played all over Europe. But each time he returned home, he discovered that Otilie was not getting over her father’s death, and her own health was failing. Just over a year after her father died, Otilie passed away at only 27 years of age, leaving Suk with a four-year-old son.

This double strike of fate left the composer reeling in despair. He returned to the halfway-finished symphony and began rewriting, expanding, and darkening it. The result is at times harrowing, compelling, ingenious, original, and full of warmth. Stylistically, Suk certainly owed something to Dvořák, but he had already begun moving away from Czech nationalism toward a more international style, owing something to Brahms, Strauss, and Mahler. But there is a distinct flavor to Suk—melancholy and highly atmospheric.

Asrael’s first movement opens with a stern motif representing the angel of death of the title, and that motto looms over the five movements, until the end when it is harmonized into a distinctly Czech-sounding chorale. Hrůša conducted the score from memory, effectively shaping its overall arc with inexhaustible energy. The first movement grew to a violent, percussion-fueled climax, only to be followed by the shell-shocked funeral march of the second, built around a quotation from Dvořák’s Requiem.

The third-movement Vivace dissolves into near-incoherency. At first glance, it might seem to echo the Rondo-Burleske from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, except that Suk’s opus was written well before. In the Adagio, Hrůša evoked Suk’s memories of Otilie with great warmth, but saved full catharsis for the end of the long finale, which traces a turbulent and fragmented arc, as does the entire symphony as a whole. Hrůša encouraged bold color and rich textures from the orchestra, giving it a vital, emotional, and entirely appropriate sound.

Perhaps it has hurt Suk that his voice doesn’t have quite the variety of Mahler, nor the gleam of Strauss. But a committed reading like this one proves that Suk was capable of writing powerful, moving music. The number of performances and recordings that the work has seen in recent years suggests that slowly but surely, Asrael is beginning to spread its formidable wings.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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