Honegger: Pacific 231, Rugby, Mouvement symphonique No. 3, Prelude pour “La Tempête”, Pastorale d’été, Chant de joie. Stravinsky: Pétrouchka. Hermann Scherchen, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Westminster 289 471 245-2 (2001), barcode 028947124528
Recorded September 1954 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
Westminster MVCW-14032 (1999), barcode 4988067039989 (2-CD set with the six Honegger pieces and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Firebird-suite):
Westminster UCCW-1053 (2003), barcode 4988005325723:
Would be terrific even if it had only the Honegger program
originally posted on Amazon.com, 7 March 2013
Let me skip for the time being the Stravinsky part of the program and concentrate on the remainder, the Honegger part, which was MY main interest in getting the CD. It collates the contents of three original LPs from Westminster’s Laboratory series, W-LAB 7010 with Honegger’s three Mouvements symphoniques (Pacific 231, Rugby and the unnamed No. 3) and Prelude for the Tempest , W-LAB 7011 with Stravinsky’s Petrushka and W-LAB 7032 which paired Chant de Joie with Stravinsky’s Firebird-Suite . Some Scherchen discographies (the one by Lawrence Friedman for instance) include Pastorale d’été in W-LAB 7032, but it is not the case, witness the LP’s review in High Fidelity of May 1956 . All were recorded in September 1954 with an orchestra dubbed the “Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London”, a contractual alias for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1957 Westminster grouped all the Honegger pieces on a single LP, XWN 18486 (link will open a new tab to entry on Discogs.com) including Pastorale d’été which, as far as I could establish, made there its first appearance, and later that same year paired the Firebird-Suite with Scherchen’s recording of Petrushka on 18530.
The Honegger symphonic poems were rarer then than now and it was the first time that all three Mouvements symphoniques were collated on a single album, although the Honegger champion Georges Tzipine had also recorded all three with Orchestre National, but they were never assembled on one LP (Rugby and Pacific have been reissued on CD, Les Rarissimes de Arthur Honegger, but not Mouvement symphonique No. 3). Scherchen’s Mouvement symphonique No. 3 might have been a recording premiere too – the one by Tzipine, paired with the recording premiere of Symphony No. 4, came out in 1955 (it was reviewed in the December issue of the magazine “Disques”), although it could have been recorded before Scherchen’s. Pacific and Rugby had been recorded before World War II, first by Piero Coppola (in 1927 and 1929, reissued in 1998 by Dante on their Piero Coppola collection, Vol. 3 – La Musique Française XXème Siècle) then by the composer himself in 1930 (the edition I recommend is the one on Music & Arts, CD-767, from 1993); the recordings of Tzipine were made in 1953. Honegger also recorded Pastorale d’été and the Prelude to The Tempest back in 1930, and there were other recordings of Pastorale, by Ansermet and Martinon among others, before Scherchen’s. But Chant de Joie was, I believe, a recording premiere.
The first thing that strikes the ear listening to Pacific 231 is the huge sonic improvement of Scherchen’s Westminster recording over all the previous ones, not just the premiere by Piero Coppola in 1927 and Honegger’s own take in 1930, but even Tzipine’s with Orchestre National in 1953. Although some details remain blurred at various points, there is such a great delineation of each instrumental section that you could almost think it was stereo. It conveys great instrumental character, and for instance the double basses at 0:51 (just after an awkward edit) have never, even in modern recordings, sounded with so much ruggedness and pungency. That said, that sonic superiority turned out to be a short-lived advantage: Bernstein recorded Pacific and Rugby in 1962, and the stupendous Columbia sonics sent back to prehistory not only Scherchen’s recording… but even many that followed Bernstein’s (with Milhaud: Les Choéphores and Roussel: Symphony No. 3 on Sony Masterworks Heritage MHK 62352 or on Bernstein Century: French Masterpieces, Sony SMK 60695). Independent of the sonics, Scherchen conducts a fine Pacific, lacking only the kind of propulsive momentum that Honegger himself brought to it in his recording from 1930. Honegger had described the locomotive he had in mind while composing Pacific as a “heavy-weight, high-speed” machine. Scherchen pursued and magnified a trend started with Tzipine and that became the norm thereafter of a locomotive slowly rolling into motion, and more implacably powerful than truly speedy.
It is the exact opposite with Rugby, where Scherchen’s main distinctive feature is his wonderful propulsive energy, making this the shortest game on record, at 7:03 even marginally faster than Coppola’s and Honegger’s, both at 7:10. Tzpine in 1953 took it in 7:39, and nobody since, even Bernstein, has recaptured that dynamism. Likewise, Scherchen hurls into Mouvement symphonique No. 3 with unparalleled fury, making everybody else that came after sound well-behaved, if not sluggish. But Scherchen’s version is also, a you can expect of him, one of huge personality and great contrasts, with the “poco piu pesante” section between 1:51 and 3:13 taken “molto pesante” and at a pace almost ground to a halt, recalling… the beginning of Pacific. The sonics afford great vividness especially to brass and woodwind, lending them much more character and impact than in most recent recordings. The final part, “adagio” (from 5:28 onwards), unfolds a fine sense of brooding appeasement, despite the RPO violins sounding badly undernourished and the saxophone (but here quite appropriately) very French in timbre and typical vibrato.
Likewise, nobody I’ve heard, before or after, has even approached the raging fury of Scherchen’s Prelude to the Tempest. It has to do with his pressing tempi, but not only (Marius Constant adopts the same, on Erato 2292-45862-2). Just take the passage starting at 1:40: with Scherchen it sounds like a furiously pounding bacchanale, something close to John Antil’s Corroboree (see my review on Amazon.com of Eugene Goossens’ Everest recording, Villa Lobos: The Little Train of the Caipira / Antill: Corroboree / Ginastera: Estancia; Panambi). Nobody else, not the composer, not Constant, not Serge Baudo (1986, originally with his recording of King David on Japanese Supraphon 60CO-1412-3, reissued with the complete symphonies), not Plasson (on DG), has ever approached that kind of impact.
Chant de joie is rarely recorded and isn’t Honegger’s best inspiration, illustrating the composer’s “naïve” style also in evidence in King David and the Christmas Cantata. Here, in a very similar approach to tempo, the 1992 stereo sonics of Paul Sacher and his far better orchestra serve the composition’s atmosphere much better (Pan Classics 510 053, reissued on Accord 203 022, with Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique” and Horace victorieux). But the best Chant de Joie, the one that really lives up to its title, is the old 1955 recording of Robert Denzler for Decca with Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire (with a fine Symphony liturgique), finally reissued in 2015 on Decca’s mammoth 53-CD set 478 7946 “The Decca Sound – The Mono Years 1944-1956”, barcode 028947879466. On the other hand Scherchen leads a very atmospheric Pastorale d’été, much more expansive than Honegger’s and Ansermet’s early recordings and again with the sonics making it sound almost stereo, although again both the sonics and the orchestra lack the tonal lustre to fully bring it off.
Notwithstanding, even if it had been limited to the 43-minute Honegger program, this CD would still be terrific, more than half a century after those pieces were recorded. The 33-minute Petrushka is a great bonus. I’ll return… in due time for an in-depth review of it. Be patient.