Collection Piero Coppola vol. 3: La Musique Française du XXème Siècle (Roussel: Suite en fa op. 33, Naissance de la Lyre op. 24 excerpt. Honegger: Pacific 231, Rugby. Schmitt: La Tragédie de Salomé. Rabaud: Mârouf Savetier du Caire Danses. Golestan: Rapsodie Roumaine). Dante Lys 373 (1998), barcode 3421710413732
When Pacifics really sped
1 February 2018
Just a partial review of the two Honegger pieces gathered on this valuable Dante “Piero Coppola collection vol. 3” from 1998. Coppola’s recordings of Pacific 231 (composed in 1923) and Rugby (1928), aka Mouvements symphoniques Nos. 1 & 2, have an unquestionable historical significance, as they were the premiere recordings of both pieces, Pacific from 15 November 1927 and Rugby on 4 March 1929. Actually there HAD been a previous recording of Pacific – but not on 78s acetates: on a Pleyela perforated roll (the Pleyela was a player-piano/pianola, see Wikipedia entry); this is probably the performance referred to (without mentioning any details, not even the fact that it was played on piano and recorded on rolls) by Harry Halbreich, the authoritative Honegger scholar and biographer, and ascribed to 18 February 1925, and certainly the one reproduced on an Italian LP from 1986, “Primitivismo e Mito della Macchina” , EDI PAN PRC S20-34 (with rolls of Alfredo Casella and modern performances of piano works of Antheil and Cowell by Daniele Lombardi), but there ascribed to 14 October 1927 (reference of the roll provided: Pleyela PM C.A. 12). For more details on that story and that roll, see here – and be prepared for a great bonus.
The next electrical recording (as shown by this clip from The World Encyclopeda of Music) was made by Honegger himself, on 13 February 1930 (some CDs say just “1929”), with no entirely clear-cut sonic improvement (some details come out better, some others not). For Honegger’s version, see my review of Music & Arts’ edition on CD-767, with links to other reisues. Naturally, the 1927 and 1929 sonics, as those of 1930, make these recordings little more than documents: Honegger’s dense and intricate orchestration in both pieces calls for modern stereo. And it isn’t just the clogged textures, the “Orchestre Symphonique du Gramophone” is untidy (most conspicuously when bassoons in Pacific enter half a beat early in measures 46 to 53, at 1:16): Pacific and Rugby are, really, miniature concertos for orchestra and they call for a virtuosic orchestra, and this one clearly isn’t. But whatever their flaws, something comes through these recording, as it does with those made by Honegger, which was rarely if ever recaptured in subsequent versions: momentum, propulsion. By his own description, the locomotive that Honegger had in mind in Pacific (describing in musical form not so much its actual sounds, as the physical impression conveyed by the machine) was a “heavy-weight, high-speed” engine, and he also talked of the “lyrical state, the pathos of the train hurled in the middle of the night at 120 kilometers an hour” (yes, that was very fast in the 1920s). Later versions concentrated more on the weight, with a slow rolling up to motion and a motion that was never frienzied, and on bringing out all the details of the orchestration. Typically, Coppola and Honegger completed their ride in, respectively, 5:54 and 5:56. No subsequent version that I’ve heard (a dozen) made it under 6:00, and none more acutely than Coppola and Honegger made Pacific sound so close to Mossolov’s Iron Foundries. The same dynamic propulsion is at play in both versions of Rugby, although here, Scherchen, in September 1954, had even more (and much better sonics, as reissued to CD in 2001 on Westminster 289 471 245-2) and Bernstein in 1962 had as much in the piece’s second part, and sonics that heve never been bettered (paired with Milhaud: Les Choéphores and Roussel: Symphony No. 3 on Sony Masterworks Heritage MHK 62352 or on Bernstein Century: French Masterpieces, Sony SMK 60695).
I’ll return to the rest of the program, especially the Roussel and Schmitt pieces… whenever. Stay tuned.