Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Pastorale d’été (1920) [7:23]
Symphony No. 4 Deliciæ Basiliensis (1946) [24:19]
Une cantate de Noël (1953) [21:57]
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir/Neville Creed
New London Children’s Choir/Ronald Corp
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 28 March 2007 (Pastorale, symphony); Royal Festival Hall, London, 5 December 2009 (cantata).
Sung texts included
LPO-0058 [54:35]

Of the group of composers known as ‘Les Six’ Arthur Honegger strikes me as the ‘straight man’ of the bunch. Over the years I’ve enjoyed the Pastorale d’été, Pacific 231 and Rugby – first encountered on a Jean Martinon LP – and the oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bÛcher in Seiji Ozawa’s classic recording for DG (429412). The symphonies are much harder work, and at various times I’ve owned – and persevered with – both Charles Dutoit’s contributions (Warner Apex) and Herbert von Karajan’s (DG). In short, I need to be persuaded, and I hope this new recording will do the trick.

It’s actually a double challenge, as I’ve had misgivings about Vladimir Jurowski as well. I was most impressed with his DVD of Wagner and Mahler – review – but much less taken with his Mahler Resurrection. I’m just not convinced the LPO are playing at their best for him, although that DVD does hint at a deeper rapport between them. Honegger’s Pastorale d’été is a charming work that, despite inevitable comparisons with Debussy’s faun, is not as sensuous or engaging. Still, the woodwind playing is fresh and alert and there’s a lovely, mellow horn, but rhythms could be more pliant, the sense of languor more pronounced.

The Pastorale and the Symphony were both recorded in the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, and although the sound is detailed and reasonably warm it’s rather airless. The Symphony is a small-scale piece whose textures can seem rather austere at times, although the opening misterioso is quite atmospheric. Jurowski certainly captures the rigour and clarity of Honegger’s writing, and dynamics are well judged. One senses more engagement from the orchestra, who delight in the work’s more unusual rhythms and sonorities. The lower strings are wonderfully incisive.

Longueurs? No, not really, but spare writing can so easily slur into greyness. Before it does Honegger springs a surprise with soft, tolling tam-tam strokes near the end of the first movement. What a pity the final shimmer is faded much too abruptly, which rather spoils the intended effect. The well-paced Larghetto is more animated and timbres are well caught. Indeed, this is as close as Honegger gets to light-heartedness, and the players respond to each other as if part of a much smaller band. That makes for some terrific interplay and orchestral badinage. Not so ‘straight’ here, and the applause – omitted from the Pastorale – is certainly appreciative.

This is the closest I’ve come to enjoying this symphony, and much of the credit for that must go to the LPO’s energetic, pointful playing. As for Jurowski, he seems more unbuttoned, and that makes all the difference. I wish I could be equally enthusiastic about the Christmas Cantata, which always strikes me as unseasonally lugubrious. That said, the organ is splendid at the outset – it sounds very under-powered in the Martinon version – and the wordless choir and bass ostinati are superbly done; as for the children, they sing with great unanimity and gusto. Thankfully there’s no sign of stress in those taxing upper registers, and the harp is sensibly proportioned. Baritone Christopher Maltman is a disappointment through – he’s too uneven. Although Silent night emerges most beautifully from the mix, this Christmas story remains a rather drab affair.

I’ve warmed to Honegger a little after hearing this disc, but there’s no Damascene conversion just yet. But then sampling Martinon after all these years made me realise how fickle memories can be, and how good a job Jurowski and the LPO have done here. So if you’re looking for these works – well played and recorded – this is a good place to start.

Dan Morgan

If you’re looking for these works – well played and recorded – this is a good place to start.