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Arthur HONEGGER (1892 - 1955)
Les Miserables (complete film score) (1934) [59:00]
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
Recorded Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 2-5 July 1989
NAXOS 8.557486 [59.00]

Honegger was involved in some forty film scores ranging from his earliest essays (Abel Gance’s La Roue in 1922 and Gance’s Napoleon in 1926) through to his last work in this genre in 1951. He was exclusively responsible for around half of these scores, the remainder, due to pressure of time, he wrote in tandem with other colleagues including Jolivet and Milhaud.

Honegger regarded his work on La Roue and Napoleon as apprentice work; some other scores, such as Mermoz and Regain he arranged into concert suites. At the urging of Miklós Rózsa, who was deeply impressed by the score, Honegger arranged five movements from Les Miserables into a concert suite. This suite, along with those from Napoleon, La Roue and Mermoz, has been recorded by the same forces on another Marco Polo disc.

What this disc attempts to give us is Honegger’s complete score. This runs to around an hour of music which is not much for a film whose three parts originally lasted for a total of around five hours. There are some 23 cues which means that some of the music is of relatively short duration. The score has been edited by the Swiss conductor Adriano. He has combined some of the shorter cues into rather effective single movements. One scene had to be reconstructed from the original sound-track, and other scenes are recorded complete where the film uses them in truncated form or omitted them entirely. On the debit side, they miss out some very short cues, described as being of no interest, and Gavroche’s death scene which seems to have been omitted mainly because it required a singing voice. Couldn’t this have been arranged for a wind instrument?

Honegger scored the music for full symphony orchestra, with piano, saxophone, harp and percussion, but omitting double basses. He uses the full orchestra in only four movements. The remainder are written for various flexible and more chamber-like combinations. A major factor in Honegger’s thinking was probably the rather primitive recording technology of the time. This also led Honegger to use single woodwind, but Adriano has the usual wind doublings as he is using a rather larger ensemble of strings. Various other retouchings have been done and the tempi used are those of Maurice Jaubert, the conductor on the original sound-track, rather than Honegger’s own metronome markings. All in all, this is an extremely welcome release although it is not quite a complete recording of the score as Honegger wrote it.

Though Honegger did utilise some leitmotifs, his view of film writing was that film relies on contrasts, rather than continuity and logical development. So his music reflects this, adapting itself to the visual element to create a whole. Each movement is a vivid evocation of mood or action. Adriano obviously has a good feel for this score and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra respond well. The result is attractive and involving. But more could, perhaps, have been made of it. The packaging includes an illuminating article by Adriano, but the 17 different movements are given a title only. A listener who is unfamiliar with Hugo’s novel will struggle to divine the action that the music is complementing. A little more help would have been very useful. Though the disc was originally issued on Marco Polo, it has now resurfaced at budget price on Naxos so we cannot complain too much.

Charles Koechlin considered this score to be ‘one of the best film scores hitherto created’. Honegger’s film work is still relatively unknown and this disc enables us to explore in detail one of his major scores in the genre.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Patrick Gary

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