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Engagingly Heartening

Choral and orchestral music
by Arthur Honegger -
enjoyed by

'... strikingly performed by Welsh forces directed by ... Thierry Fischer.'

Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël. © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

'My preference, and my endeavour, has always been to write a music which would be understandable to the great majority of listeners and at the same time sufficiently free of banality to interest the connoisseurs.'

Arthur Honegger's credo, in his 1951 monograph Je suis compositeur, seems modest enough. What he leaves out of the statement is any reference to the sheer qualities of imagination and inspiration that so often illuminate his extensive output.

The most divisive work here is a 'mimed symphony' H38 Horace victorieux, after Roman historian 'Livy' (Titus Livius 59 BC-AD 17). The work was composed in 1921, premièred by Ansermet in November of that year, and conceived as a ballet on a Roman legend of the fight between the Horatii and the Curiatii.

The Horatii were a set of male triplets from Rome. During a war between Rome and Alba Longa, an ancient city of Latium in central Italy (approx 672-642 BC), it was agreed that settlement of the war would depend on the outcome of a battle between the Horatii and the Curiatii. The Curiatii were a set of male triplets who were from Alba Longa and of the same age as the Horatii.

Listen -- Honegger: Le combat (Horace victorieux)
(track 6, 0:00-0:53) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

In this work Honegger juggles contemporary elements, splicing their keyless features to a more structured blueprint. But to my ears it remains too beholden to cloying fin de siècle gestures of an earlier generation.

The best rival performance (and it is good) was recorded on DGG (1991) with Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse and former OCT principal conductor Michel Plasson (1968-2003).

Beside Horace victorieux, Plasson's recording includes Pastorale d'été (1920), Mouvement symphoniques (3): No 1, Pacific 231, Mouvement symphoniques (3): No 2, Rugby, Mermoz: Suite No 1 La Traversée des Andes (1943), Mermoz: Suite No 2 Le Vol sur l'Atlantique (1943) and La tempête (1923).

The new British disc (exemplifying Hyperion's elevated benchmark standards) has more noteworthy variety; the single-movement 'mimed symphony', the cello concerto, excerpts from a ballet-melodrama Amphion and finally Honegger's fine, unconventional Christmas cantata from the early 1950s.

Honegger, born in Le Havre, was Swiss by parentage and nationality. He began his studies at the Zürich Conservatory, but shortly thereafter he moved to Paris to study with Charles Widor and Vincent d'Indy. The ballet Le dit des jeux du monde (1918) is often considered to be his first characteristic work.

He spent much of his life living in Montmartre and for a time was one of several young composers associated with oddball, self-styled Parisian 'phonometrician', Erik Satie. A phonometrician is 'someone who measures (and writes down) sounds'. The 1920s bright sparks -- Honegger and his friend Milhaud, with Poulenc, Auric, Tailleferre and Durey -- became known as 'Les Six'.

Mentored by Satie and Cocteau, 'Les Six' are remembered for an output of tongue-in-cheek, lightweight music and an ersatz 'Franco-American' jazz idiom.

Honegger and Milhaud remained close friends, and later Milhaud dedicated his fourth string quintet to the neo-classicist's memory, while Francis Poulenc similarly dedicated his Clarinet Sonata.

Before long Honegger had begun to go his own way and he wrote a mimed symphony Horace victorieux (H38) and the dramatic oratorio Le Roi David (H37), also premièred in 1921. He was most active during a flurry of composition between the wars.

His output included five symphonies -- 1930 : H75, 1941 : H153, 1946 : H186 (Symphonie Liturgique), 1946 : H191 (Deliciae basiliensis) and 1950 : H202 (Di tre re). In addition there were three string quartets, nine ballets and three vocal stage works, including the dramatic oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (1935) and the opera Antigone (with libretto by Jean Cocteau). His 1948 'Concerto da camera, for flute, English horn and strings' is a central work in the flute repertoire.

Honegger believed in an alliance of music and other arts, and he contributed to stage, radio and cinema, including soundtrack music for Abel Gance's epic 1927 film Napoléon. The same year he married pianist Andrée Vaurabourg, and they toured widely in Europe and the USA. During World War II Honegger remained in Paris; then from 1947 he taught at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, until his illness in the early 1950s. He is currently featured on the Swiss twenty franc banknote.

Listen -- Honegger: Andante (Cello Concerto)
(track 10, 0:00-1:01) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

The Cello Concerto of 1929 was dedicated to Maurice Maréchal (1892-1960), who premièred the piece in Boston and wrote the cadenza preceding the finale. From the rapt beginning, forty-year-old German cellist Alban Gerhardt unerringly captures the work's contrasting depths and jazz-inflected urban ebullience.

The Prélude, Fugue and Postlude (1948) were originally three cues from the ballet Amphion (1929), which Honegger arranged as stand-alone pieces after the war. This is quintessential Honegger, interfacing his unique harmonic blend with some direct vestige of neo-classical texture -- a very rare work on disc, recorded only twice before.

The economical, neo-classical scoring for Cantate de Noël is as follows -- baritone soloist, mixed choir (SATB), children's choir, organ, and modest orchestra.

Cantate is baroque in derivation and 20th century in compositional technique with decisive rhythms and fluctuating time signatures -- Honegger's final work and deservedly among his most favoured.

Honegger began the cantata in 1941, working alongside Swiss (Aargau canton) poet Cäsar von Arx who initially wrote the libretto. In 1949, when von Arx committed suicide, Honegger promptly stopped work on the piece until the early 1950s, nearly twelve years after starting.

Listen -- Honegger: Première partie (Une Cantate de Noël)
(track 17, 4:35-5:48) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

The Cantate's subsequent text is part liturgical, though its greater length comprises Austrian, German and French carols, each sung in their native tongue and juxtaposed one upon another. It was first performed by the Basle Orchestra under music philanthropist and conductor, Paul Sacher.

While Honegger's seasonal cantata is neither irreligious nor strongly reverential, its impact is engagingly heartening. He does not offer the twinkling, present-wrapping Christmas but something more foundational.

Evident components of Honegger's style are: Bach-like counterpoint, instinctive orchestration, firm rhythms, a resolute adherence to melody and colorful harmony, and a devotion to long-established compositional precepts.

A gloriously recorded, judiciously selected overview of Honegger's orchestral and choral music, Hyperion's disc is strikingly performed by Welsh forces directed by Honegger specialist and countryman; conductor Thierry Fischer.

Here's hoping it helps bolster the revival of Honegger's unjustly neglected 21st century profile.

Remember, though the composer was a self-confessed locomotive afficianado, his popular Pacific 231 of 1923 was just the kid in Honegger letting off steam.

Better listen to Hyperion's more durable programme.

Listen -- Honegger: Fugue (Amphion)
(track 15, 2:05-3:23) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Copyright © 28 December 2008 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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