SUCHON: Balladic Suite; Metamorphosis, Symphonic Fantasy on B-A-C-H. JUROVSKY: Symphony No. 2 (“Heroic”)

SUCHOŇ: Balladic Suite; Metamorphoses. Klará Havliková, piano. RCA (Germany) PRL1-9056 (26.41393).

SUCHOŇ: Symphonic Fantasy on B-A-C-H. JUROVSKÝ: Symphony No. 2 (“Heroic”). Ferdinand Klinda, organ; Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ludovít Rajter. RCA (Germany) PRL1-9055 (26.41392).

Eugen Suchoň (1908-1993) may be an unknown name in this country, but he happens to be the leading figure in Slovak music of the 20th century. (Remember, the Slovaks retain a separate cultural identity from the Czechs.) He is one more excellent example with which to illustrate my oft-stated assertion that many superb composers whose music might otherwise appeal to a broad segment of the musical public never find that public. In this case, obscurity is the consequence of a career spent in this isolated corner of Eastern Europe. Now, thanks to German News for importing these discs, licensed by German RCA from Opus, a Slovak label, a sample of Suchoň’s music is made fairly accessible to American listeners.

Suchoň, along with one or two others, is credited with representing the Slovak ethos in the language of cosmopolitan art music. He has accomplished this largely by imbuing a rich, impressionistic post-Romanticism with the distinctive melodic intervals and rhyth­mic gestures of Slovak song. Suchoň’s long early period is exemplified well by the Balladic Suite (1936), his first major work, and one that caught the attention of Furtwängler and Karl Böhm, and the Metamorphoses (1951-52), which, along with the opera The Whirlpool, represents the culmination of the first 25 years of Suchoň’s work. Both the Balladic Suite and the Metamorphoses exist in orchestral versions, once recorded on Supraphon, but the piano versions are at least as effective, surprisingly enough.

The general temperament of Suchoň’s music from this period is restless and agitated; most works tend toward the dramatic and monumental. Textures are woven with Scriabinesque complexity. The intervals of the fourth and the tritone predominate in the melody, and Suchoň’s harmonic language is filled with expanded tertian structures bursting with augmented triads. The piano writing is truly virtuosic in the grand manner, making considerable demands on the performer, but is rewarding to a competent artist who can meet the challenge, providing the gratifying impact expected from this sort of traditional bravura pianism.

Of the two piano works, I find the Balladic Suite the more fully satisfying: its contours are clearer and its drama is more concise. The Metamorphoses, a large, sprawling variation structure, intended to depict the composer’s emotional responses to the ravages of World War II, is an impressive and stunning achievement on many levels. Yet at times its agitation seems excessively rhetorical and lacking in direction. Still, Suchoň commands a broad range of expression, and his clearly recognizable, individualistic profile is evident at all times.

Klará Havliková, who is something of a specialist in Suchoň’s piano music, does a commendable job in projecting these challenging works. While she is not quite the power­house virtuoso this music demands, and seems a bit cautious with some of the rhythmic intricacies, she is, nevertheless, a highly sensitive and competent performer, and her ren­ditions of these two imposing works are quite satisfactory. The sound quality is adequate and the surfaces are fairly good.

The Symphonic Fantasy on B-A-C-H  represents a later step in the evolution of Suchoň’s musical language. Here his vocabulary has moved away from the opulent tertian harmony of the earlier piano works, and much closer to the strange, compelling violence of much Czech music of the past 25 years or so. Scored for organ, string orchestra, and percussion, this 1971 work, though ostensibly one more homage to the Baroque master, clearly suggests a significance far more sinister. Its connection to tonality considerably attenuated, and its harmonic palette far more astringent, this nearly 30-minute work develops the famous four-note motto into a cataclysmic statement of unforgettable impact. Exhibiting a preoccupation with the ominous repetition of simple, percussive rhythmic patterns shared by contemporary Czechs like Kabeláč, Fiser, Lukas, Sommer, and others, Suchoň reveals a new, metaphysically enigmatic side to his musical personality. The organ is used to excellent advantage, as a timbral as well as thematic participant. Subtle, unearthly details of sonority abound; offsetting the violent moments are passages of ethereal mystery, making this a fascinating and provocative companion to the earlier works.

The Symphony No. 2, “Heroic,” by Simon Jurovský (1912-1963) is another imposing entry in the contemporary Czech school of explosive symphonic upheavals. The work dates from 1960 and is divided into three movements, entitled “Life,” “Suffering,” and “Struggles.” Needless to say, it is heavy. However, in comparison to Suchoň, Jurovský’s Symphony is less consistently interesting, displays a less distinctive personality, and tends at times to he overly blatant. Yet it is a competent, serious work with many powerful moments.

The performances on this recording are surprisingly superb; the recorded sound is quite stupendous, as the music demands; the balance between organ and orchestra is ex­cellent, and surfaces are silent.

This is a most worthwhile pair of imports. The only significant shortcoming is the fact that liner notes are printed in German only. (Interestingly, the original Opus releases contained English translations.)

I hope that German RCA will decide to issue more of Suchoň’s music, a large body of which has been recorded in Czechoslovakia. Especially thrilling is the 1938 cantata Psalm of the Carpathian Country—also recorded on Opus—a truly stirring, monumental work that combines the solemnity of Eastern-European liturgical music with the brilliantly colored grandeur of a Rózsa film score at its best. The first 10 or 12 minutes alone are worth the cost of the record.