Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Symphony No. 1 (1931) [29:57]
Symphony No. 3 Liturgique (1946) [25:03]
Sinfonieorchester Basel/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. live 18-19 Jan 2012 (No. 3); 02-03 March 2011 (No. 1), Stadt-Casino Basel Musiksaal, Switzerland

The Sinfonieorchester Basel has made a number of recordings and now has formed its own CD label managed by Solo Musica. Dennis Russell Davies, as of the 2009/10 season, has become the orchestra’s third chief conductor. For this, the second release from this label, Davies has chosen a disc of music by Arthur Honegger.
Born in Switzerland, Honegger adopted France as his home although maintaining his Swiss citizenship. He lived for much of his life in Paris and was a member of the small but influential group of Paris-based composers known as Les Six. Honegger remains one of those composers who are known more by reputation than by the number of their works actually performed. I can’t recall the last time I saw a Honegger score in any concert programme although he has done somewhat better in the studio. His five symphonies and the symphonic movements Pacific 231 and Rugby are the scores that I come across on CD the most often. The oratorio King David did bring him a degree of success at its première, however, his masterwork is the splendid yet concise Cello Concerto of which there are several accounts available.
A magnificent judge and so commercially aware, Karajan clearly valued Honegger’s music. In 1969 with his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) he recorded close together both Honegger’s Symphony No.2 for trumpet and strings at the Französische Kirche, St. Moritz and the Symphony No.3 Liturgique at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem. This is available on Deutsche Grammophon ‘The Originals’ 447 435-2 (c/w Stravinsky Concerto in D).
Honegger’s three movement Symphony No.1 was written in 1929/30 to mark the fiftieth anniversary the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1931. It was premièred in Boston under the baton of their musical director Serge Koussevitzky. Marked Allegro marcato spiky dissonant rhythms are at play in the turbulent first movement. At times the writing may snarl but it never totally unsettles the listener. Omitting any conspicuous sense of calm the Adagio supplies an undertone of unease.Although relatively agreeable the squally writing of the Finale, Presto - Andante tranquillo communicates uncertainty, constantly wandering as if searching for something firm, stable and safe. In the final pages a sense of peace and security finally arrives. 

Honegger composed his Symphony No. 3 for large orchestra in 1945/46; a commission from the Pro Helvetia Foundation. One of Honegger’s best known works each of the three movements is named after a section of the Catholic Requiem Mass. It was Charles Munch and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande who introduced the work in Zurich in 1946. The opening movement, titled Dies irae (Day of wrath), is the terrifying depiction of the Judgment day in the Requiem Mass. Interplay between anxious strings punctuated by tempestuous brass, swirling woodwind figures and martial percussion provide a near-macabre quality. The second movement De profundis clamavi (Out of the depths Have I Cried) is meditative in quality with a disquieting undercurrent. It evokes a scene of a spectral moonlit Forest in the manner of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. In the central section the writing becomes increasingly dark and weighty. From point 11:30 a contemplative character becomes more welcoming with a solo flute gliding over the music like a dove of peace. A brutal and incessant marching rhythm is at the core of the third movement Andante entitled Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace). Honegger seems to revel in the writing for strings, brass and barbaric percussion. From around 5:00-6:50 the tension in the music increases to a discordant climax. Solo strings and a flittering flute bring us to a peaceful conclusion leaving a palpable sense of exhaustion. Karajan’s reading of the Third Symphony communicates even more drama than Davies does with his Basel players. Karajan conveys an additional hard-driven sense of anxiety and angst.

These radiant Basel performances make a strong impact. All sections of the orchestra play with strong conviction and a satisfying unison. The engineers at the Stadt-Casino Basel Musiksaal provide a vividly clear and well balanced sound. Although these are live performances I didn’t notice any unwanted audience sound and there is no applause at the end of each score. I am pleased with this performance. It has much to commend it and I don’t have a recommendable alternative account to suggest. However, in the Symphony No. 3 Liturgique the 1969 Karajan is certainly worth obtaining for its quite exceptional playing and impressive sound.

Michael Cookson 

These radiant Basel performances make a strong impact.