The symphonic monument Asrael, written in memory of the composer’s wife Otilie and her father Antonin Dvorak, embodies for Czech musicians what Verdi’s Requiem does for Italians – a summit of national loss and hope. Unlike the Verdi Requiem, it has never caught on outside its heartland. Its great interpreters on record have all been Czech – Talich, Ancerl, Kubelik, Pesek and now Jiri Belohlavek. To the latest interpreter the heritage must have weighed particularly heavy since he knew he was mortally ill and this recording would stand as his legacy.
Never a flamboyant conductor, Jiri Belohlavek goes for large dynamic contrasts in the opening movement, pushing the Czech Philharmonic to the edge of its comfort zone. The third movement Vivace sounds more Mahlerian than ever (did Mahler always dance best in Czech?) and the two adagio finales reach deep into the human soul to find consolation for great loss.
There is magnificence in this music and in this approach to it. I would not wish to place this performance above the four I have already recommended since each adds a contemporary historical dimension to the work, reflecting the Czech people under Nazi rule, Communism, liberalism and present-day corruption and confusion. With Belohlavek, the personal dimension rings out loud and clear. Like the composer, he finds a way to accept the implacability of fate, oblivious to political conditions. A companion CD contains Suk’s sunnier Fairy Tale.
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