Eugen Suchon’s Symfonietta Rustica by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi

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Usually when writing a CD review I have some notion of the piece and the composer. I don’t have an extensive classical CD collection, but I’ve come across most well-known works and can at least roughly pigeonhole most composers. That said, I was completely on unknown ground with Eugen Suchoň, so I’ve had to do my homework – but it’s been a pleasing discovery!

Suchoň (1908-1993) was one of the most important figures in Slovak musical history of the twentieth century. Through his appointment at the Bratislava Academy of Music and Drama from 1933 and after the war at Bratislava University, Suchoň was able to pursue both his teaching career and his work as a composer in a wide variety of genres.

This CD focuses on some highlights from his orchestral output. Whilst the Baladická Suita stems from his early period in 1935, the other two works on this recording are both from the middle period: Metamorfózy in 1953 and Symfonietta Rustica in 1955-56, before Suchoň began to incorporate serialism into his later compositions.

Suchoň’s works on this CD are overwhelmingly tonal and yet his careful use of broad melodies means that they don’t sink into pastiche. He often makes use of fugue, pitting the orchestra against itself in contrasting challenges. His style has obvious Romantic roots in the Eastern European and Russian traditions, but Suchoň was also notably one of the trio of Slovak composers (including Moyzes and Cikker) who established their own sound in the mid-twentieth century, drawing inspiration from the music of the region.

The gentle touches are some of the best moments. Metamorfózy (Metamorphoses) opens with a single horn and seems initially calm and pastoral. The second movement quickly dispels this, as the violins take the striving melody onwards and the brass enter in a big swell for the first time. The last three movements are much longer than the first two. In the third Suchoň really starts to develop his material: midway through a pulsing bass line leads into a fugue passed around the whole orchestra, notably including the piano, and following this is a lovely passage for solo wind, then paired oboes accompanied by pizzicato lower strings. The highlight for me was the fourth movement, Larghetto, which includes a perfectly judged clarinet solo. This movement also contains extensive use of harp and tuned percussion, which could seem soupy and cliché, but just stays the right side of the mark in this case.

It was interesting then to move back in the composer’s biography twenty years and to find the seeds of similar ideas in Baladická Suita (Balladic Suite). Broader and brasher than the other two works on the CD, there is still a constant sense of something brewing in this suite, just like in Metamorfózy. Suchoň builds up the first movement to a frenetic pitch through rising scale passages throughout the orchestra which are punctuated by brass and percussion. But then all of a sudden it just fizzles out! After a calm slow movement, the fever returns in the Allegro molto of the third movement with persistently bubbling semiquavers which return time after time until the movement finally finishes triumphantly. A Largo follows with some soothing melodies.

The final Symfonietta rustica is a re-working of Suchoň’s piano sonata Sonata rustica, written for his wife who was a pianist. It begins with a chirpy melody in the violins, which rapidly grows well out of hand as a folk tune – even the snare drum comes in to rattle. In this movement there is also a charming violin solo (played by Harry Traksmann) which twizzles around and reminded me a lot of Vaughan Williams. Just imagine what music we would have had from the English folk-inspired composer if he had used Slovak folk tunes as the basis of his work! A twisted march tune forms the basis of the second movement, which builds up and up before dispersing for a quieter middle section of wind solos and not quite standard harmonies. The final Allegro assai ends the Symfonietta with a bang though. Developing from a brass fanfare the movement takes off at quite a lick, but this is not furious or frenetic, just a rhythm which is pushing onwards. It’s all over within 3 minutes and the orchestra bangs out on a squiff-sounding chord, but that’s all you’re getting from Suchoň and it’s just as it should be.

So after my overwhelming introduction to Suchoň and Slovakian twentieth century music, how do I feel about this CD? Excited to learn of a composer who is accessible and challenging as well as being part of the East European and Russian tradition that I so enjoy. Neeme Järvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra give the works on this CD the grandeur they require, for whilst they may all be orchestral suites, there is nothing small about these pieces.

PS. A nice touch in the CD booklet is the dedication to the Estonian sound engineer Maido Maadik who worked on recordings for over 200 CDs and who passed away last December.

Reviewer: Katie Lodge

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