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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Horace victorieux (1920-21) [21:24]
Cello Concerto (1929) [16:37]
Prélude, Fugue et Postlude (1929 arr. 1948) [12:54]
Une Cantate de Noël (1952-53) [24:46]
Alban Gerhardt (cello); James Rutherford (baritone); children from the choirs of Tewkesbury School, Schola Cantorum and Dean Close Chamber Choir, Robert Court (organ)
BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales/Thierry Fischer
rec. 14 December 2007 (live), St David’s Hall, Cardiff (Cantate), 20 - 23 February 2008, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, DDD
HYPERION CDA67688 [75:43]

Experience Classicsonline

Arthur Honegger was a member of Les Six who became a major symphonist. He had a delight in trains, hence his most famous composition, Pacific 231, a description of just such a train making a journey and undertaking an emergency stop. He also wrote operas, operettas, chamber and instrumental works and music for film (he scored Abel Gance’s Napoleon). It was Honegger who introduced Miklós Rózsa to the idea of writing for film.
Horace victorieux is described as a symphonic mime after Livy. It’s a large, disturbing and violent score, with little repose. It’s brilliantly scored and full of the most thrilling music. Not an easy listen, perhaps, but then what music by Honegger is an easy listen? What a piece, though! Perhaps the violence has militated against it being performed too often, but it’s a fascinating start to his orchestral canon. It was preceded only by Le chant de Nigamon (1917) and Pastorale d’été (1920), neither of which prepare one for the onslaught which is Horace victorieux. Although this performance cannot hold a candle to Michel Tabachnik’s truly hair-raising account of the work (with l’Orchestre National de France, on a Barclay LP (995 042), coupled with Honegger’s 1stSymphony), the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gives a powerful and heroic account. This, alone, is worth the price of the disk.
The Cello Concerto is different entirely. It’s gentler, more melodic and great fun. This work has the tang of Stravinsky and Les Six, it’s so obviously a product of the 1920s. Alban Gerhardt plays very well indeed in this authoritative performance, which perfectly captures, by turns, the raucousness of the age, in the bristly finale and a certain wistfulness. However, if you can find the 78s of the work, given by Maurice Maréchal - for whom the work was written - with Honegger conducting, grab it, for it is a fine performance as well as an historical document.
The Prélude, Fugue et Postlude derives from a larger choral work, but it is obvious that Honegger meant it to be seen as a separate entity. Although enjoyable it’s not quite up to the very high standard Honegger set himself and is thus a bit of a disappointment. The material isn’t memorable and the orchestration is too thick - too easy and obvious. However, it’s good to have any Honegger on disk so I won’t carp too much. 

Une Cantate de Noël
is more a quodlibet than a cantata, mixing, as it does, well known carols with prayers in Latin. Here is the only French choral work I know which comes anywhere near the greatness of Lili Boulanger’s magnificent Du fond de l’abîme - one of the handful of 20th century masterpieces for chorus and orchestra. It brings together all the different strands of Honegger’s art, and so we have the tension of the 3rdSymphony, side by side with the easy-going music of the 4th combined with beautiful choral writing, all underpinned with a transparent orchestral score. It’s easy to see why the work has become popular and it has been recorded several times - once it even appeared as a free CD, given away with the BBC Music Magazine, so it must be popular! Like the other performances on this disk, this is good, but it still leaves one wanting more, for the interpretation fails to reach the heart of the music. Added to this, the usually reliable James Rutherford suffers from a wide vibrato which grates on the ear - how one yearns for the perfect vocal production of Pierre Mollet (in both the Ansermet (Decca 414046) and Tzipine (not available) recordings) and the chorus sounds rather lacklustre, and too small, at times. The final climax is well handled.
These are good performances, but there are better, and they never quite rise to the occasion as they should. The sound is fine with a very wide dynamic range and the booklet has an informative note and a full text and translation. However, this disk will find many friends for this important and interesting composer and, for that, we should be grateful for its issue. For repeated pleasure, though, I shall be looking elsewhere.
Bob Briggs  
















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