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Arthur HONEGGER (1892 - 1955)
Symphony No. 3, "Liturgique," H.186 (1945) [33.00]
[Mouvement Symphonique No. 1], H.53, "Pacific 231" (1923) [6.17]
Mouvement Symphonique [No. 2], H.67, "Rugby" (1928) [7.49]
Mouvement Symphonique No. 3, H.83 (1933) [10.05]
Pastorale d’été, H.31 (1920) [7.52]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Recorded at Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 25 January 2002
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.
NAXOS 8.555974 [65.04]


Comparison recordings of Pacific 231:
Hermann Scherchen, RPO [mono ADD] Westminster DGG 289 471-2
Leonard Bernstein, NYPO [ADD] Sony MHK 62352
Michel Plasson, Toulouse SO DGG 435 438-2
Charles Dutoit, Bavarian Radio SO Erato ECD 88171
Comparison recordings of Symphony #3:
Herbert von Karajan, BPO [ADD] DG 423 242-2
Charles Dutoit, Bavarian Radio SO Erato ECD 88045

Having the same birthday as J.S. Bach, who stood at the watershed between the Renaissance and modern music, Honegger, born in France of Swiss parents, stood between the German and the French aesthetic. He found a particularly successful fusion of them in his mature style. His works abound in fugues, canons, chorales and passacaglias and just as often we encounter atmospheric, impressionistic sections of which Debussy would have been proud. Honegger was not afraid to write beautiful music, nor to depict ugliness in music. Not since Liszt had orchestral music like this been heard. Honegger could have emigrated to Switzerland and lived out WWII in relative comfort, but he remained in France to help his mistress and their child cope with the Occupation, thus certainly shortening his own life.

People who are unfamiliar with Honegger’s music are likely to like the Third Symphony right off. Dedicated to Charles Munch, who unfortunately never recorded it, it begins with a chaotic movement depicting the horror of war in more or less traditional but very economical orchestral style. The adagio "De profundis clamavi" is a solemn canonic dance of at times exquisite beauty, but with echoes and intrusions of fearful ugliness. The third movement begins with an unfortunately accurate prediction of the world to come, the march of the "...robots against civilised man*..." Honegger skilfully depicts banality with music that is everything but banal. When we can’t take any more of this, everything crashes to the ground and the adagio music quietly rises from the ruins to give some renewal of hope for the future. By the end of the war, Honegger was ill and depressed and during the last ten years of his life never recovered his youthful ebullience.

The Pastorale is in a form Honegger used also with Chant de Joie—A : B : A+B—where a first section is followed by a section on a differing theme in contrasting tempo, and then the two are combined in double counterpoint for the third section.

As with Mozart, only those who love this music play it at all** and those who love it generally play it pretty well. The Scherchen recordings are great hi-fi classics from the early 1950s, and his is still my favourite performance of Pacific 231 [which the composer should probably have entitled "Pacific 4.6.2," but never mind], and until recently was also the best sound available. True Honegger collectors have the composer’s personal favourite recording, by Willis Page and the Orchestral Society of Boston, one of the earliest stereo recordings of anything ever made. Dutoit, his engineers, and his players deal splendidly with the work’s complexities and give us a top-drawer performance and recording. Bernstein produced one his most inspired performances, although unfortunately his excellent Pastorale has not yet been issued on CD. The Plasson performance is conservative and the recording very transparent, with a very timid bass drum.

Pacific 231 holds a special place in my affections. At the time many years ago when I was just getting to know classical music and was generally bewildered as many are by the vast quantity of it and all the diverging styles and forms, Pacific 231 was the first piece of modern music I heard and instantly assimilated, liking it right off and feeling I "understood" it. It’s generally a free-form set of canonical variations for large orchestra on several recurring motifs, none of which is really a theme until near the end when some of them come together to make a counterpoint. In the hands of a perceptive and witty conductor (Scherchen) it is almost hilarious how the seemingly accidental pile-up of orchestral sounds every now and then makes a noise exactly like a locomotive. In a much quoted and misunderstood remark Honegger once said that locomotives fascinated him the way other men are fascinated by women. The score is unusual in that all tempo changes are carefully notated and a conductor need only keep track of the time signature changes and beat constant time for it all to come out right, but there is enough more for the conductor to do keeping everyone on cue for the astonishing number of rhythmically independent instrumental lines.

The work predates Villa-Lobos’s Little Train of the Caipira,*** Ravel’s Bolero, Prokofiev’s Second Symphony, and Alexander Mossolov’s Iron Foundry. It may have, as an antecedent, the charade scene from Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène. As with many other composers, Honegger eventually became disgusted with people’s vulgar attitude towards the program — expecting every note to refer in some way to machinery — and eventually repudiated it, later writing his Mouvement Symphonique #3 without any stated program, dedicating the work to Wilhelm Furtwängler.

If Charles Munch never recorded the Third Symphony, his student Charles Dutoit made the first digital version of the whole set. His Liturgique smoothes over rough spots and emphasises the calmer moments although his timings are less that Karajan who works for dramatic contrasts and builds furious tension when called for. But Takuo Yuasa and his players achieve more drama, more sweetness, and greater tension and clearly sweep the field.

Takuo Yuasa’s performances easily equal all previous versions (except perhaps Scherchen’s Pacific 231), and his is also the finest performance of Rugby I’ve ever heard, better even than the Bernstein’s. This music has never sounded so good as on this disk, obviously a high resolution master, with a giant bass drum right up front. If you already have satisfactory recordings of this repertoire, you may want to wait for the surround-sound DVD-Audio which should be a top-bracket hi-fi demonstration disk. If you can’t wait, this is one of the finest sounding CDs I’ve ever heard — at any price.

* Note the influence on this music from Frederick Cohen’s Green Table ballet music.

** Glenn Gould, an exception to most rules, reportedly despised Mozart and played the music in order to ridicule it.

*** The Tocata movement subtitled O Trenzinho do Caipira from Bachiana Brasilieira #2, based on a tune which is all but identical to Peggy Lee’s "We are Siamese" from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. But let’s try to stay at least within sight of our subject.

Paul Shoemaker

see also review by Terry Barfoot


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