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Eugen SUCHOŇ (1908-1993)
Metamorfózy (1953) [26:48]
Baladiká suita, Op.9 (1935) [21:32]
Symfonietta rustica (1955-56) [14:45]
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 2013, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn.
CHANDOS CHAN10849 [62:36]

The appearance of a disc like this on the New Releases list always creates a frisson of excitement for the collector of the unsung composer. Eugen who? Never heard of him? On closer inspection, his dates and those of the works are a little worrying – could he be a hardcore serialist or atonalist? The title “Rustic symphony” could be ironic. Fortunately, samples from the Chandos website were able to dispel this concern. Suchoň clearly wrote in a style that paralleled Vaughan Williams and others who resisted the urge to “modernise”.

So who was he? He was born in western Slovakia, a short distance from Bratislava. He attended a number of music institutions in Bratislava, and completed his studies with a masterclass in Prague with Vitězslav Novák. He held a number of teaching posts in Bratislava, and is described in the booklet notes as “the most influential and respected Slovak composer of the mid- and late twentieth century”. That label rang a bell with me: it was not that long ago that I encountered the music of his contemporary and countryman Alexander Moyzes for the first time (review). When I checked back, Moyzes had been described in a similar way, grouped together with Suchoň. Their career path was very much in parallel, but where Moyzes explored the symphony, Suchoň’s main interest was in opera. There is a comprehensive, well-constructed website in English about his life and works.

The earliest of the three works, the Baladiká suita, shows the basic elements of his style: Slovak folk music, Ravelian impressionism and colourful orchestration. There are no obvious ballads on which it is based, nor any other programme that I am aware of. The four movements are arranged fast-slow-fast-slow, though this is slightly misleading, as there are contrasting sections in all four. There is a very Vaughan Williams-like passage in the second movement, and if you are looking for a signpost composer, RVW is probably the best I can give you. Suchoň doesn’t have the anger and sarcasm of Shostakovich or the modernistic leanings of Prokofiev or Bartók and is not remotely near being a neo-Classicist.

Metamorfózy (Metamorphoses) is the most substantial work, unusually organised with two short opening movements, followed by three longer ones. Suchoň described it as a set of variations on an original theme, while the booklet notes link it to scenes before, during and after the war. I'm not in a position to argue with this, but the music doesn’t suggest this to me. The fourth movement Larghetto, apparently representing peace, is almost Hollywood film score, particularly in this recording - more of that below. The final movement – depicting celebration and triumph – seems more militaristic than the third, which is apparently wartime. It is quite bombastic, which might be perceived as triumphalism, and actually rather spoils the work for me. It is almost as long as the third and fourth movements combined without the musical content to support it.

Symfonietta rustica is an orchestration and revision of an earlier piano sonata, and doesn’t strike me as particularly rustic. Again the phrase “film score” comes to mind, but not one set in a rural idyll. There is admittedly a Lark Ascending moment, but equally passages for snare drum and raucous brass. The middle movement is darkly atmospheric, with moments of angry outbursts, and even hunting horns; at last something rustic. The brief final movement begins with a brass fanfare, before slipping into sinuous strings. It closes with a satisfyingly bold flourish; again anything but rustic. Perhaps because of its brevity, I’d say it is the most consistently satisfying of the three works, though I have enjoyed them all.

These works have all been recorded before, though in the case of Symfonietta rustica, the previous versions were LP era or on hard-to-obtain eastern European labels. There is a Marco Polo recording of the other two (8.223130), now only available as download, with the Slovak Philharmonic under Zdenek Kosler. I haven’t listened to it fully, but I must say that some of the usual caveats with mid-1990s orchestral recordings from this label don’t hold here. The playing of the woodwinds is very good, and in quieter moments, there is greater clarity and openness in the Marco Polo than the Chandos. However, the Slovak strings are less than ideal, and the sound quality is thin in louder passages. There is no doubt that the Chandos recording sounds beautiful, but this may not the positive that one might expect. This music could stand a little rawness. The Estonians play wonderfully but I believe Järvi’s interpretations turn this music into something Korngold might have written for Hollywood, smoothing out the sharp edges and losing its character. Järvi takes more than five minutes less in Metamorfózy than Kosler, each movement being significantly shorter, and much less characterised. This tendency in Järvi’s recent recordings has been noted by several, though not all, of my colleagues, among them Brian Reinhart in his review of the first two volumes of the Atterberg symphonies.

I very much enjoyed meeting the music of Eugen Suchoň for the first time, and wish that more was available. I do regret that these readings are rather superficial.

David Barker