Josef Suk’s “Asrael” is a beast of a symphony. In fact, this whole concert was all about grand expressions and noble gestures and two pieces having much more in common than just their Czech heritage. For one thing, the two composers were related – Suk having married Dvořák’s daughter and heralding a very happy period in his life – and for another, both pieces contained homages to loved ones. And if you thought that Dvořák’s tribute to his beloved sister-in-law in his Cello Concerto was touching, spare a thought for poor Suk, whose double tragedy of both his wife and his father-in-law and former teacher dying within months of each other inspired his “Asrael” Symphony. Fate can indeed be a fickle friend.

Truls Mørk, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the LSO
© Mark Allan

No cellist worth their salt is a stranger to Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. Truls Mørk joined Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in a lyrical and intense performance of this warm-hearted concerto. Mørk’s tone is not as meaty as others, but his lighter patina lent itself very well to much of this piece, showing impeccable technique and a maturity in the ebb and flow of his phrasing. Gardiner started Dvořák’s symphonic exposition at a slightly leisurely pace, but in doing so exposed the rich, gliding LSO sound. They were lacking an element of grit at times, but once joined by the soloist they began a proper dialogue. Mørk produced beautiful lines in the slow movement and masterly control over dynamics, the orchestra counterbalancing attentively with sympathetic flute solos and a glorious horn accompaniment – although the majestic climax did err on the heavy side. A nice element of punch in the Finale showed Gardiner in buoyant mood and not hanging about, which accentuated Mørk’s effortless contrasts between ethereal legato and folksy bite and made the heartwarming and uplifting coda all the more rewarding.

Although Dvořák was one of the twin inspirations behind Suk’s “Asrael” Symphony, the piece was not awash with Czech nationalism in any obvious sense, as by this time Suk was now moving towards a period of Czech modernism, employing more progressive harmonies and structures. However, this highly-charged piece, named after the Islamic Angel of Death, did epitomise the heightened emotions of the late Romantic period, which Gardiner wasted no time in exploiting.

The impassioned climaxes that permeated the piece were impressively controlled but occasionally lost some of the detailing in the melee, although Gardiner did pay great attention to highlighting the myriad colours and textures in the less frantic passages. The LSO displayed dynamism and subtlety throughout, giving a mystical feel to the second movement with lilting phrases over throbbing strings. Harps and the mercurial Scherzo flared up aggressively before a restful central section revealed gushing strings and colourful woodwinds and brass, but with elements dragging towards the end of the movement. Gardiner shaped the Adagio sensitively, producing an organic rise and fall in Suk’s waves of passion and fond memories, and conveying an overall sense of contentment rather than mournful loss. The fighting spirit returned in the final movement, with grotesque winds encouraging drive and turbulence throughout the rest of the orchestra and ending with a calm air of resolution and catharsis to close this emotional journey.

Despite a lack of Bohemian bite, the piece was immaculately played with characteristic finesse and a symphonic gloss, the power of the LSO and Gardiner’s direction carrying the natural momentum of this muscular work through. But I still felt, notwithstanding all of this, that there was more to give to really nail this elusive masterpiece.