Anyone looking for relief from January gloom in the Philharmonie, or at least from the Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko, is out of luck. In two different programmes, the orchestra’s chief presents a pair of scores shot through with tragedy. Mahler’s Sixth comes later in the month, and here it was the turn of Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony (1906), a Petrenko party piece (if that’s the right term), which he recorded early in the century while at Berlin’s Komische Oper.

Kirill Petrenko, Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Stephan Rabold
Kirill Petrenko, Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

Like Mahler’s “Tragic” work, Suk’s was inspired by cruel blows of fate: it was originally conceived after the death of his father-in-law, Dvořák, but its second part was replotted when Suk also lost his young wife, Otilie. Its fourth and fifth movements represent a profoundly moving diptych in her memory: one a touching, loving portrait; the other what feels like an attempt to find reason and reconciliation, its final delicate apotheosis almost bordering on kitsch. Or it would do, were Suk’s sincerity and seriousness not etched into every bar.

With this five-movement, hour-long symphony, comparisons with Mahler are inevitable, but Suk’s sound world is different: shadowy, unironic, heavy with a sense of fate (the melancholy cor anglais features prominently). Asrael, to my ears at least, is often reminiscent of Zemlinsky in its rigorousness and, especially in the heavy quasi-chivalric nature of some of the first two movements’ themes, of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder (languishing unfinished in the composer’s desk at the time).

If just a fraction of the Mahler performances on orchestras' schedules were to be replaced with Suk, it occurred to me, the musical world would be a richer place. And especially so if those performances were to have anything like the fierce conviction of this one from Petrenko and his orchestra. The work’s considerable technical challenges – the violinist Suk certainly puts the fiddles through their paces – posed few problems, allowing the conductor to delve deep into the its heart, keeping a firm control on its large scale structure.

The early movements were searing in their focus, while the tenderness of the first Adagio – with superb solo work from the winds, as well as Daniel Stabrawa in the concertmaster’s chair – was beautifully captured. The finale’s trajectory from turmoil to a tentative, emotion-drenched return to beauty and the promise of something like happiness was movingly managed. This was a performance, with Petrenko himself visibly moved at its conclusion, that will be difficult to forget.

The contrast with what had come in the first half was marked: a performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto that coalesced only intermittently. Petrenko and his orchestra offered the expected precision and focus – the opening movement’s orchestral exposition was taut, precise, bristling with energy. Daniel Barenboim, playing his own straight-strung piano, offered several moments of magic. There was unexpected delicacy and wit in the finale, and he still showed he can cast a spell in the Largo.

Elsewhere, though, there were too many inaccuracies, the playing drifting out of focus before reasserting itself with a brusque bump. Beethoven’s brilliant passagework, especially in the first movement, came across fatally short of sparkle – an effect exacerbated by Barenboim’s instrument, whose muted timbre proved an unsatisfactory match for this orchestra’s focused sound in the direct acoustic of the Philharmonie. A disappointment before the interval, then, but this concert’s second half was remarkable. 

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