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Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955) Le Roi David
Christophe Balissat – Narrator
Athena Poullos – Witch of Endor (actress)
Lucie Chartin (sop)
Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo)
Thomas Walker (tenor)
Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Daniel Reuss
rec. Studio OSR, Geneva, September 2016 MIRARE MIR318 [71:37]
Honegger conceived Le Roi David as an oratorio but he called it a “symphonic psalm.” Telling the story of the life of King David in three very condensed parts, its choral movements are mostly versions of Biblical Psalms, so the subheading is pertinent. After the 1921 premiere, however, he provided a narration to link the different sections, and it is that version that we have here.
There is an intentional strangeness to much of Honegger’s scoring. Using only small instrumental forces, and dominated by winds, he creates an airy sound world that is probably meant to evoke the music of the ancient Middle East. We’ll never know how successful he was, but I was often put in mind of Berlioz’s similar attempts in Les Troyens, and the effect is pretty convincing.
This recording is very good, too. A lot of that comes from the well-judged acoustic. The small number of musicians and the (fairly) small chorus need a close acoustic to make it work – they’d be lost in the Barbican – and the OSR’s studio does the job very well, bringing them close up to your ear, so that Honegger’s effects are heard clearly but unobtrusively. Daniel Reuss embraces the strangeness of the piece, too. He doesn’t try to smooth it out, but revels in the odd contrasts of textures, which is the correct approach. Listen to the way the March of the Philistines (track 13) leers all over the place, for example, and smile as you do so.
Narrator Christophe Balissat has a lush French voice to lose yourself in, and his swimmable tones suit the piece well, I thought. True, he is put in the shade by the hyperactive Witch of Endor, who you wish was on the scene for longer, but he’s still pretty good, and he judges the music well for the moments when he has to speak through the interludes.
The singers are good, too. Marianne Beate Kielland is pleasingly androgynous when she sings the words of David, and the seductive melismas of Lucie Chartin are bewitching, especially when she sings the words of the angel. Thomas Walker is similarly alluring, especially when he sings the words of Psalm 121 in track 21. The chorus is the mainstay of the work, however, and it is lively and engaged throughout. The intimacy of the acoustic suits them very well, and their blend with the instruments is just right, especially in the big climaxes that end each part.