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Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Symphony No. 3 'Liturgique' (1945)
Pacific 231 (1923)
Mouvement Symphonique No. 3 (1933)
Rugby (1928)
Pastorale d’été (1920)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Recorded 23-25 January 2002, Wellington Town Hall, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.555974 [65.04]

Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre of Swiss parents, and studied at the Zürich and Paris Conservatoires. His early works began to make his reputation in Paris, and he became famous around 1920 as a member of the group of composers called Les Six. His artistic outlook, however, tended to be at odds with their Satie-inspired views, since he was more naturally drawn towards a serious expression: "I have no taste for the fairground, nor for the music hall, but, on the contrary, a taste for chamber music in its most serious and austere form."

Honegger’s symphonies represent one of the most significant contributions to the genre during the whole of the 20th century, and the greatest of them is the Third, known as the Liturgique. In this work, which is better served in the recorded catalogue than in our concert halls alas, the benchmark remains Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic. His reading has such nobility, and the Berlin Philharmonic's playing such sensitivity and tone, that it remains without peer, despite all the other recordings which have appeared over the years. Of course this music is strong enough to transcend the limitations of any one performance of it, but even so Karajan remains the only contender if a single recording has to be recommended.

Be that as it may, this new Naxos issue gives us a compelling performance and one of the best recordings to have come from this label. For the first movement, Dies Irae, has great attack and all the orchestral discipline that implies. Here and elsewhere the horns are magnificent and the effect created is compelling and exciting. By contrast the second movement, De profundis clamavi, is a true Adagio: From the depths I cry unto Thee O Lord. Like Karajan before him Yuasa sustains a really slow tempo with playing that has an appropriately concentrated commitment. The danger in the slow movement, as so many recorded performances show us, is that the music can be taken too quickly. Not so here, since once again Yuasa judges phrasing, tempo and line with compelling insight and judgement. And again the orchestral playing conveys his and Honegger’s message. For this is a fine performance, and the disc is worth acquiring for this alone.

The programme also contains four short bonus items, in the form of the celebrated railway engine piece from the 1920s, Pacific 231, plus the Mouvement Symphonique No. 3, the symphonic poem Rugby and the atmospheric Pastorale d’été. The latter is the most directly appealing of these compositions, and as such is probably the most often performed nowadays. It is given suitably atmospheric treatment.

Pacific 231 is one of those compositions that is famous but hardly ever performed. Like its companion pieces, Rugby and Mouvement Symphonique No. 3, it is representative of Honegger’s genius and his tautly symphonic control of musical development. This places a burden of responsibility on the performers, since there is little attempt to entice the ear with beauty of sound. But Yuasa and his New Zealand players show a true understanding of the idiom and the individual pieces, in this excellent disc from an unlikely source.

Honegger is one of the great composers of the 20th century and his cause is an important cause. He is well served here.

Terry Barfoot

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