Joseph Suk's "Asrael" Symphony is one of those death-driven, love-haunted Monumental pieces that every composer of stature (or who aspired to stature) seemed to be writing in the years before World War I. Some of the greatest and best-known are the symphonies of Mahler and the "Gurrelieder" of his student, Arnold Schoenberg.
Last night in Meyerhoff Hall, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and its Czech-born music director, Libor Pesek, brought us the Suk symphony -- which some critics claim approaches the heartwrenching stature of the best post-romantic masterpieces. But "Asrael," which takes its name from that of the angel of death in Islamic mythology, is no masterpiece.
There's no denying the sincerity of the work -- it was written to commemorate the death of the composer's father-in-law, Antonin Dvorak, and the sudden death of Suk's beloved young wife. And there are some beautiful effects -- ominous scrapings of the lower strings in a fourth movement funeral march, magnificent horn writing in the finale and some gorgeous solos for the principal strings -- but too much of "Asrael" is predictable. Long before it ended, for example, one knew how it would end: a lovely melody in the upper strings would rise above the death theme from the first movement. The works of the great post-Romantic composers include us in their grief and yearning -- they speak for us; Suk's "Asrael" Symphony is locked within its private sadness.
Earlier in the evening Pesek and his fine orchestra accompanied pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Beethoven's C Minor Concerto. Ohlsson played the piece with immense competence -- only a fine pianist can play such featherweighted octaves and such impressively clean passage work. But for all his obvious mastery, there was not much in the way of color, drama or anything else that might have compelled interest.