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Symphony No.1 Shoah (1994)
Testament (1994)
Symphony No.2 From Ashes Reborn (1995)a
Moscow Chamber Chorusa; Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Mikhailov
Recorded: Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, September 1994 (Symphony No.1, Testament) and November 1995 (Symphony No.2)
CENTAUR CRC 2333 [57:31]


The notes for this release tell us very little about the composer, except that he is a multi-faceted musician: pianist, composer, equally at home in popular music as well as in concert music. He apparently wrote a considerable amount of music for radio and television, and composed many logos for various American broadcasting corporations as well as those for the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games coverage. He is also quite active as a jazz musician.

Needless to say that the three recent works recorded here are in a totally different league and quite serious in intent. Both Symphony No.1 "Shoah" and Testament were composed for the Shoah Concert in Berlin, and were first performed there in 1994. The composer mentions that his own family had to escape from Nazi Germany whereas his wife’s family suffered through the death camps. These commissions were thus most welcome, allowing the composer "to play a part in insuring that this dark history of the Holocaust would not pass unforgotten". He does so in quite simple, though eloquent terms, both in the First Symphony and in its companion piece Testament. As far as I can judge, Honoroff’s music is rather non-developmental, but rather proceeds by repetition of some simple, memorable basic material, continuously varied in instrumental colours, somewhat in the same way as in Ravel’s ubiquitous Bolero or Kilar’s Exodus, to mention two fairly obvious points of comparison. While listening to the First Symphony, I kept thinking of Constant Lambert’s remark about the use of folk songs in concert music: "All you can do with it, is repeat it... louder". Fortunately enough, Honoroff’s folk-like, modally inflected themes are quite memorable and his scoring is remarkably varied. Moreover, he never attempts at making too much of his themes, so that the music never outstays its welcome. One may, however, feel somewhat frustrated by the lack of development in music such as this. The movements often stop abruptly with too little sense of real, goal-oriented finality. But, and this is a big "But", the music, though unquestionably sincere, never attempts at plumbing any great depths. It rather aims at direct expression and communication in the most direct terms, avoiding any overblown rhetoric. The poignancy of much of the music is enhanced by its utter simplicity and – most importantly – its restraint. Even in the second movement of the First Symphony commemorating the Holocaust proper, the music is often redolent of the quietest, most lyrical parts of John Williams’ beautiful score for Schindler’s List rather than, say, of Schönberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. The symphony’s companion piece Testament is quite similar in spirit and letter, and might actually have been its fourth movement. A sincere, deeply felt elegy for all its formal and thematic simplicity.

The Symphony No.2 "From Ashes Reborn", too, is mostly elegiac, this time looking back on another 20th Century tragedy, the Vietnam war. The composer again avoids any jingoism and histrionics, and goes on reflecting on the "pity of war", ending his piece with a peaceful hymn for chorus and orchestra using a poem written by a Vietnam war veteran (unfortunately, no words printed in the booklet), which beautifully rounds-off this moving work.

The performances are fine indeed, well prepared, committed and very well recorded.

Clearly, no great masterpieces here but undoubtedly sincere, honest statements that deserve respect.

Hubert Culot


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