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Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
La Danse des Morts (1938) [30:05]
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Requiem (1972) [43:33]
Christoph Bantzer (speaker); Katherina Müller (soprano); Kaja Plessing (alto); Michael Connaire (tenor); Stefan Adam (bass); Jürgen Henschen (organ)
Kantorei St. Nikolai, Hamburg
Hamburger Camerata/Matthias Hoffmann-Borggrefe
rec. live, 20 November, 2010, Hauptkirche St. Nikolai, Hamburg. DDD
French and Latin text (Honegger), Latin text (Martin). German translations included.
TROUBADISC TRO-CD 01441 [73:48]

This is an intelligent piece of programming to place together in one programme. Recorded live at a concert these are highly contrasting works on the subject of death by two important Swiss composers. The value of this release is increased because neither work is exactly well represented in the catalogue. A performance of the Honegger, conducted by Charles Munch, is included in a large box of live Boston recordings that I reviewed some time ago and I have a very vague recollection of seeing another recording in a CD shop a long time ago but this, I suspect, is the only modern or single-disc version currently available. The Frank Martin Requiem is scarcely better represented. There’s a recording of the first performance, conducted by the composer, on Jecklin-Disco JD631-2, which I used to own on an LP but it’s many years since I heard it and it may not be easy to acquire. A search on Amazon suggests there’s also a version on a label called Musikszene Schweiz but to all intents and purposes, if you want either or both of these works in your collection this Troubadisc release is probably your best bet.
 
Fortunately, both works are well served on this disc. There are a few slight imperfections, as one might expect from a live performance – I wonder if any rehearsal edits were spliced in – but there’s nothing that I could detect to mar one’s appreciation. Perhaps best of all, the engineers have achieved a good balance so that the choir is not swamped by the orchestra, even in the loudest passages. The choir makes a very good showing, in fact, and the soloists are all fully satisfactory, with bass Stefan Adam being the pick of the team. In the Honegger Christoph Bantzer is a very good speaker. He’s a German actor but I had to look that up to be sure since his French is extremely convincing. Though the performances were taped at a concert I couldn’t detect any audience noise; there’s no applause at the end of either piece. Though the concert was given in a church the acoustic is not unduly resonant and you can hear plenty of detail.
 
Frank Martin’s Requiem is a late score and it’s demanding of both performers and listeners. Like a lot of this fine composer’s output that I’ve heard, especially his later works, the tone is pretty austere. You might say that that’s only to be expected in a Requiem and I wouldn’t disagree. The music has great integrity and intensity but what I miss is much evidence of warmth or consolation. Perhaps that’s because Martin’s idiom is shot through with – but by no means dominated by - 12-tone influences. There’s a fair amount of dramatic writing too: the Kyrie, for instance, is an urgent plea for mercy while the opening of the ‘Dies Irae’ begins with subdued dissonant writing for the orchestra over which the choir speaks in whispers, the volume gradually increasing. It’s an effecting and arresting piece of writing. The ’Dies Irae’, which is the longest section of the work, includes significant passages for the various soloists. The Agnus Dei is a deeply-felt solo for the alto. Perhaps most surprising of all is the ‘In Paradisum’. This is nothing like the gentle, radiant settings by the likes of Fauré or Duruflé; rather, the tone is highly declamatory but, then, this is a very individual Requiem. Overall it’s a work I can admire – quite a lot – but I don’t find it easy to love.
 
La Danse des Morts is a further collaboration between Honegger and Paul Claudel, who had worked together to such good effect on the masterly Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher. Indeed, it was a visit to Basel in 1938 for the première of Jeanne d’Arc that directly inspired La Danse des Morts for during Claudel’s visit he saw Holbein’s woodcuts inspired by the medieval fresco, the Great Basel Dance of Death. Claudel set to work on a text, much of which is drawn from Scripture, and Honegger had completed the score by the end of 1938. One wonders how much the work was influenced by the gathering political storm clouds in Europe at this time. The first performance, in 1940, was conducted by Charles Munch.
 
The score is vivid, even graphic at times. As with Jeanne d’Arc Honegger integrates the spoken narration with the singing very effectively. The Dance of Death itself, which is the second of the work’s eight sections, has a sinister jauntiness to it. Honegger works three old French folk songs into this section and his teeming music gives a strongly coloured Breughel-like aural tapestry of the crowd. I was reminded of the episode in Jeanne d’Arc that depicts the King setting off for Rheims. After this tumult has died down there’s an extended baritone solo, ‘Lamento’. This is serious and restrained music, lightly accompanied, and it’s deeply felt. Stefan Adam sings it very well. This is a very involving score though I don’t feel it’s as fine a piece as Jeanne d’Arc.
 
This is a good disc containing interesting and rarely-heard repertoire in strongly committed performances. The documentation is good save in one respect. Besides the original texts – Latin and French – only a German translation is provided. Since the notes are in German and English it seems a bizarre decision not to offer an English translation of the texts.
 
John Quinn