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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]

Toccata has recently been investigating the piano works of Ján Cikker, Marco Polo promoted a good deal of Alexander Moyzes’ music, and now here is Chandos with its disc devoted to the last in the triumvirate of Slovak composers born in the half-decade between 1906 and 1911. Of the three, I think it’s fair to say, Slovaks would consider Suchoň to be the most prestigious and The Whirlpool, his powerful first opera (once available on the Campion label), continues to exercise an important place in Slovak music of the first half of the twentieth-century.

Neeme Järvi concentrates on three orchestral works reflecting differing sides of Suchoň’s compositional imperatives. The earliest is Baladiká suita, (Balladic Suite) which was composed a couple of years after he’d completed post-graduate studies with Vitězslav Novák in Prague. Elements of Novák’s palette can be felt throughout this four-movement work. There are strong suggestions of a frantic march in the impetuous opening section, slowing for a contrastive panel, but then resuming. The slow movement doesn’t plumb expressive depths and apart from a surging string tune, the material itself is not as distinctive as would be the case later on in his development. Nevertheless the brusque power of the scherzo accompanied by some delightful and slightly odd sonorities are attractive, and this is probably the most individual and personalised of the movements.

Metamorfózy (Matamorphoses) was written nearly two decades later. It’s a symphonic suite, or concerto for orchestra – take your pick. The subtitle ‘Variations on Original Themes in the Form of a Suite for Orchestra’ is meticulous to the point of pedantry. It is, contrary to that rather academic-sounding description, a splendidly warm and beautifully orchestrated piece. The opening slow movement has something of the noble grace of the In Church movement from his erstwhile teacher’s Slovak Suite whilst the hazy lyricism of the second section, with its distinctive wind writing, brings more pleasure. More urgent, agitatedly martial material develops but with variety of tempo and texture. Increasingly in the fourth movement the percussion and brass alert one to a wartime sub-text, though it’s sometimes delivered with an almost Straussian opulence of expression.

The Symfonietta rustica of 1955-56 is an orchestrated adaptation of an earlier sonata for piano and shows his personal approach to the early Impressionist influences on him, though these are fleeting – as are the brief suggestions of Delius and Vaughan Williams – and move in favour of more overt rusticity. The finale, the shortest of the three movements, is the fiercest, freshest and most folkloric and leaves a stirring impression.

Marco Polo didn’t actually neglect Suchoň and devoted a disc to him that included both the Metamorphoses and the Balledic Suite, with the Slovak Philharmonic conducted by Zdeněk Košler (8.223130). As with his recording of Raff’s Symphony No.5 ‘Leonore’ that I reviewed, Järvi takes very fast tempi in relation to Košler and listeners may find that what they gain in excitement may be offset in the loss of a degree of expansive lyricism. They certainly won’t, however, be disappointed by the playing of the Estonian National Symphony, which is athletic and powerful in all departments. They do Suchoň proud and whilst this doesn’t appear to be the start of a series from Chandos, I hope they can explore his music more widely.

Jonathan Woolf

Another review ...

Until I listened to this disc I am not sure I have ever heard any music by the Slovak composer Eugen Suchoň. Given the instant appeal of this colourful and attractive music, and Suchoň's status as a major composer in his homeland one assumes that his international neglect must be more a political legacy of the Cold War rather than anything based on artistic judgements. On the other hand, the recording catalogues are not exactly bulging with alternative versions from any date or country. Couplings of the Metamorphoses and the Balladic Suite were released by Zdenek Košler and the Slovak PO on Marco Polo and Ondrej Lenard on Opus in 1987 and 1998 respectively. The former can be heard on Spotify. The same two works can also be heard in piano versions played by Ladislav Fančovič on a two disc centenary set on Pavlik Records although I am not clear whether the piano versions pre-date the orchestral ones.

One thing is certain, Suchoň writing for a large Symphony Orchestra is a skilled and colourful orchestrator - an early and abiding impression of this disc is that this showcases the virtuosity of the players almost as a series of 'Concertos for Orchestra'. This is underlined by a recording of demonstration quality - an opinion I formed before reading the touching dedication of this disc. It was engineered, produced and edited by Maido Maadik who died before its release. The disc is dedicated to his memory and in the liner it is made clear what an important influence he was in the development of recording in Estonia both for disc and broadcast. As such he was instrumental in bringing the work of Estonian performers to the wider world in - as here - the highest possible fidelity. As a memorial to his work this is very impressive indeed. If one did not know better, in the sense that Maadik was not a regular technician for them, this sounds like a Chandos house-production with exceptionally full and detailed sound which serves to underline the dynamism of much of the writing.

Suchoň shared a birth year with Messiaen and was a year younger than Shostakovich. I am not sure that anyone would claim his sound-world was as strikingly individual as either of those great composers but on repeated listenings it does become clear that he possesses a recognisable voice - albeit one made from a fusion of other influences and composers. His post-graduate studies were with Vítězslav Novák and much like his teacher's music the works presented are folk-influenced and inspired in their use of modal harmonies and melodies without any sense of being slavishly 'pastoral'. However, he avoids the dense and sometimes tortured chromaticism of Novák. Loath as I am to play the 'sounds-like' game, if pushed I would say he combines the impressionist elegance of Ravel (with an element of Respighi in reflective mood) with the energy and folk-influenced style of Kodály.

The disc opens with the Metamorphoses. This is a rather neat conception - essentially a simple set of variations on original themes but grouped together to form a suite of five movements. The first three movements play without a break whilst the final two are stand-alone sections. The opening two movements, though brief are very beautiful and gently ecstatic. Järvi plays them with fluent clarity - this is a landscape devoid of human sentiment although not lacking in drama in the way a hilltop view could be dramatic. Here and throughout the disc, Järvi follows his current penchant for pushing music on - he never allows sentiment or a sense of indulgence to break this sense of flow. Suchoň writes a substantial orchestral piano part and it his use of this allied to the harp and percussion that reminds me of Respighi in the more reflective passages of The Pines of Rome. I had dipped into the Marco Polo version courtesy of Spotify and my sense there is that Košler here and throughout the two comparable works - prefers a broader more humane - indeed occasionally fallible - approach. This is most apparent in movements such as the third - marked Allegro moderato-allegro agitato. Jarvi certainly favours the agitato (and later furioso) marking - he plays this section a full minute quicker than Košler. I simply do not know this music well enough to say which is truer to the spirit of the composer's intentions but both work. Košler is more bucolic, more good-humoured - but does this chime with markings of 'agitato' or 'furioso'? Järvi is quite simply brilliant - a stunning display of orchestral virtuosity that has you applauding it in its own right. The fourth movement is back amongst the Roman pines and seems to bask in some summer sun - Košler again a fraction steadier, and here this does feel more appropriate. When the section reaches an impassioned climax the greater refinement of the newer recording allows the music to make a more weighty impression. Given the wayward standard of some of the early Marco Polo discs it has to be said that the playing of the Slovak Philharmonic is a lot better than on other occasions from the same period. Up until this point I had enjoyed the music without reservation - unfortunately the closing movement - which is also the longest - comes across as fairly empty bombast in both versions. According to Graham Melville-Mason's liner this represents post-war "Celebration and Triumph" but the victory feels curiously hollow. Järvi is a past master at emphasising the simple visceral excitement of such music so in that sense he manages to make the most of a fairly forgettable section. One last thought given the Respighi connection - the older composer's great set of orchestral variations are also called Metamorphoseon - a simple coincidence I am sure.

The following work, the Balladic Suite is one of Suchoň's earlier works and is interesting because it is a much more thickly scored work, closer in spirit to that of his teacher Novák. Much as Bax used the term Northern Ballads for three of his orchestral works, this music does not aim to tell a specific narrative — they simply embody a mood of heroic story-telling. Melville-Mason is reminded of Vaughan Williams - an allusion that escapes me completely. I am not quite as persuaded by Järvi here, again the playing is everything one could wish for in terms of brilliance and power but it seems to be sectionalised - I do not hear a convincing through-thread. Košler chooses a wider range of tempi. I have no idea if this is an accurate reflection of any directions the score contains but it brings more emotionalism to the score, more light and shade in the narrative - more theatre if you will - and that feels appropriate. It is very hard not to give the palms in the third movement - allegro molto furioso - to Järvi. Maadik's consistently superb engineering and production highlights just how spectacular the orchestra's playing is - alongside this the Slovak players allied to Košler's steadier tempo sound cautious. Interestingly the final movement is performed with near identical timings. With the emotional temperature much cooler the differences are less marked and the extra richness and warmth of the Estonian strings brings dividends. As a whole I find this an enjoyable but less impressive work. It is less nuanced, less subtle in both musical and aesthetic terms than the Variations. Then again he was still in his twenties when he wrote it.

The 'bonus' of the new disc in comparison to any of the other versions previously available is the inclusion of a third work. This is a transcription of an earlier keyboard work - a Sonata rustica. The clarity of the writing is much closer to that of the variations and this is the work which is the most directly folk-influenced with melodies and rhythms derived from Slovak folk music and the mode-inflected shapes they contain. I do wonder, if Järvi's instinct to push the music forward undermines the essential good-humour of the music replacing it with chrome-plated brilliance. Certainly the rhythms do snap and the result is exhilarating if rather breathless. Throughout, this is the work which had me in mind of Kodály most clearly. Obviously this is not in the sense of the specific melodic content; rather in how the composers handle the musical implications of the indigenous music they reference. The climaxes are impressive but again I wonder if Järvi had allowed them to broaden out more they would not carry even more impact. The closing Allegro assai brings the disc to a suitably festive and rousing end - one that embodies the virtues of the disc technically and instrumentally as well as underlining that, these days, Järvi prefers a very direct and unsentimental approach.

Visiting the Suchoň website makes one realise that there is not a vast amount of orchestral music to explore. There are a substantial number of concertante works and works with vocal soloists or chorus, but aside from some string orchestra pieces there are only a handful of orchestral scores. In exploring Suchoň's music while preparing this review I did listen to his opera "The Whirlpool" (Krútňava) which can be heard in full - albeit disjointedly in about 30 sections - on youtube in the version from Ondrej Lenard with a rather starry Slovak cast. This is the work Suchoň considered his greatest hence my interest in hearing it. Even in the less than ideal circumstances of that stream I have to say this struck me as a genuinely impressive work. Not as individual as any Janáček opera perhaps but a compelling dramatic experience. Indeed, "not as individual but compelling" probably sums up my response to this composer's work as a whole.

Technically this is a very fine Chandos disc indeed, and if it brings Suchoň's music to a wider and appreciative audience then all the better. That does not quite eliminate the nagging doubt that there is greater humanity to this music than Järvi consistently finds.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: David Barker



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