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.