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Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Pacific 231
Symphony No 1
Symphony No. 2 "for strings"
Symphony No. 3 "Liturgique"
Symphony No. 4 "Deliciae Basilienses"
Symphony No. 5 "Di tre re"
  Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Charles Dutoit ULTIMA/ERATO 3984-21340-2 2CDs bargain price (Note: These recordings were made in 1984 and 1986 and reissued in this format in 1998)


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Here is another jewel in the Ultima series of super budget bargains and these are recommended recordings to boot!

Pacific 231 (1923) is Honegger's best known work [its proper name and style is: Pacific 2.3.1 (Symphonic Movement No. 1)]. It is now regarded by many as rather passé which is a shame because it is one of the composer's most original, radical and meticulously constructed works.

"I have always been passionately fond of locomotives. For me they are living beings and I love them as others love women or horses," commented Honegger. "What I was after was not the imitation of locomotive noises but the translation of a visual impression and a physical delight through a musical construction. It is based on an objective contemplation: the tranquil breathing of the machine in repose, the effort of getting up steam, then the gradual picking up of speed, culminating in the lyrical, engrossing vision of a train weighing 300 tons hurtling through the night at 75 miles an hour. I chose as my subject the locomotive of the "Pacific" type, with the symbol 231, used for heavy, high-speed trains…"

Another short work of impressive rhythmic imagination that caught the public's admiration was Rugby. Honegger wrote of it: "I'm very fond of football, but rugby is closer to my heart. It seems to me more spontaneous, more direct, closer to Nature than football, which is more scientific. Certainly I am not insensible to football's carefully prepared moves, but I am keenly attracted to rugby's rhythm, which is savage, abrupt, chaotic and desperate. It would be wrong to consider my piece as programme music. It simply tries to describe in musical language the game's attacks and counterattacks, and the rhythm and colour of a match…"

I will just briefly touch on the five symphonies. Honegger's energetic, youthful First Symphony was commissioned to celebrate the Boston Symphony Orchestra's jubilee. The opening movement has an abrupt impetuosity, while the Adagio is a slow heart-felt procession. After all the high-spirits, the Finale concludes in ethereal serenity. The Second World War left its mark on the Second Symphony (1941), a work for string orchestra, which is sombre and full of mourning. The basic character of the Third Symphony (1945-46) "Liturgique" is quite similar. The headings of the movements come from the Requiem Mass. Honegger described this symphony as: "…a drama acted out either in real or symbolic terms by three characters: misfortune, fortune, and man."

In contrast the Fourth Symphony is serene; its subtitle "Deliciae Basiliensis" means The Delights of Basle and it was written after the composer had spent a carefree holiday in Switzerland. There is a chamber music like sound and quality about this work. Conversely Honegger reverts to a large orchestra for the Fifth Symphony (1950). Despite some optimistic passages recalled from earlier works, the prevailing tone is one of pessimistic resignation. At the time of this work Honegger was suffering insomnia and increasingly bad health after his heart attack in 1947. (He died on November 27th 1955.) "To get rid of my gloomy thoughts I wrote them down…these turned into sketches! After I joined them together, I realised they made a symphony.."

As I said at the beginning of this review, Dutoit's performances of all these works have received good reviews and I would add that at the bargain Ultima price all admirers of Honegger should snap this album up before it disappears.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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