Kirill Petrenko, Berlin Comic Opera Orchestra


Josef Suk (1874-1935) is a remarkable example of something that doesn’t happen very often in life: a workmanlike minor composer who turns around and writes major symphonic masterpieces in the middle of his life. Greatness does not usually emerge suddenly in middle age. Without unduly stressing the autobiographical element with more than it can bear, there occurred a noticeable deepening of Suk’s musical vision after the deaths in 1904-1905 of his father-in-law and mentor, Antonin DvoÅ™í¡k and his beloved wife Otilke. Beginning with his Asrael (Angel of Death) Symphony of 1906, Suk, hitherto a composer content to write music of folksy, nationalistic inspiration in the manner of DvoÅ™í¡k, devoted himself to works of greater depth and artistic maturity. The high point of his career was The Ripening (1912-1917).

The “Ripening” of the title (perhaps the German translation Lebensreife would be more precise) is not a paean to nature. Rather, it refers to the maturity in a human life, a time for reflection and reconciling oneself to the past. Without pushing the analogy to Richard Strauss too far, we might look on The Ripening as Suk’s Ein Heldenleben, but conceived on a decidedly more intimate, personal, and less grandiose level. It is in six movements, identified by Suk’s editor Karel Å rom as Recognition, Youth, Love, Fate, Resolve, and Self-Moderation (maybe “Resignation” would be a better word). They are played without a break, and the music flows with amazing naturalness from one movement to the next, unified by the carry over and transformation of themes. The heightened theme of the scherzo in “Resolve,” for instance, bears a relationship to that of the slow movement, “Love.” Six trumpets brilliantly underscore the energetic outburst at the end of the fugue at the end. The sixth movement, described by Suk as a “birthday present” to himself, features the return of the solo violin playing a sublimely beautiful melody, backed by a trio of violins, that we first heard in “Youth.” The theme makes its way down to the double basses, and then, a masterful stroke, we hear a distant wordless chorus of women’s voices, concluding the work on a note of shimmering transcendence. Is this “modernity” suffused with romantic feeling, as has been claimed, or romantic music with a modernist tendency? Do we really care? I was too busy being delighted.

Kirill Petrenko, at the helm of the Berlin Comic Opera Orchestra, draws upon his experience as an operatic conductor to bring Suk’s luminous score to life and stress the continuity of a work that keeps our rapt attention throughout its 38-minute length. He is keenly attuned to Suk’s intricate rhythm notations, down to the tiniest 32nd interval, and the wonderfully natural flow of the narrative. The BCO Orchestra, belying its name a major organization of 112 pieces, has a glowing sound, particularly from the string section, that gives The Ripening its unique character.

Oh yes, there’s a companion piece! Suk’s overture, Tale of a Winter’s Evening, Op. 9. Suk based it on Shakespeare’s “bitter comedy” A winter’s Tale, in which a happy ending transpires instead of a tragic one only after the passage of some years. Avoiding the trap of strictly programme music, he wrote evocatively, in a way that captures the elements in the story of insane jealousy, revenge, flight, innocence, and ultimate happiness. Suk’s love of contrasted themes and thematic metamorphoses is present here, along with his unerring skill in instrumentation. With the greatest delicacy he uses oboe and English horn to conjure up the bucolic landscape of Bohemia (Yes, Shakespeare used Suk’s native country, complete with an imagined “seacoast,” for the denouement of his play), He then magically reintroduces a theme in the flute, heard inconspicuously much earlier amid storm and stress and symbolizing the heroine’s innocence, to bring the overture to a quiet, satisfying close.

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