Honegger: Symphonies 1-5, Pacific 231. Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson. EMI “L’Esprit Français” 7 64274-2 & 7 64275-2 (1992), EMI “Gemini” 5 85516-2 (2003)

Arthur Honegger: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson. EMI “L’Esprit Français” 7 64274-2 (1992), barcode  077776427423:







Arthur Honegger: Symphonies Nos. 4-5, Pacific 231. Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson. EMI “L’Esprit Français” 7 64275-2 (1992), barcode  077776427522:






Honegger: Symphonies 1-5, Pacific 231. (2 CDs) EMI “Gemini” 5 85516-2 (2003), barcode 724358551624:






Recorded at Halle-aux-grains, Toulouse
October 1977 (Symphonies 1 & 3, Pacific 231)
April 1978 (Symphonies 4 & 5)
February 1979 (Symphony No. 2)

Japanese editions:
Complete Symphonies, Pacific 231. (2 CDs) EMI Toshiba TOCE-8265 (1993), barcode 4988006685710:


Symphonies 1-3. EMI Toshiba TOCE-11128 (1999), barcode 4988006764408 Symphonies 4-5, Pacific 231. EMI Toshiba TOCE-11129 (1999), barcode 4988006764392

A very uneven cycle, with great Symphonies 1 & 2, a fine “Liturgique” and flawed No. 4 and 5
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 15 July 2013

When Michel Plasson and the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra recorded this complete cycle of Honegger symphonies, between 1977 and 1979, it was only the second one, after the much-hailed Serge Baudo with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (a cycle begun in 1960 but completed only in 1973). Since then only three new cycles appeared, Charles Dutoit‘s with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra at the turn from the LP to CD era (1982 and 1985), Fabio Luisi in 1999 with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on Cascavelle, and Roman Brogli-Sacher with the Lubeck Symphony Orchestra, recorded between 2007 and 2010 and only recently regrouped in a 2-CD set. [addendum February 2018: In 2012 Dennis Russell Davies and the Basel Symphony Orchestra began, with Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 , what seemed to be a complete traversal, published by the orchestra’s house label, followed in 2014 by 2 & 4, but the cycle was apparently never completed, Russell Davies is no longer the orchestra’s music director and even the label seems discontinued.  Anyway, Russell Davies’ first installment was mediocre]. Five complete cycles in more than 60 years (the 5th Symphony was written in 1950, and the composer died in 1955): Honegger isn’t a very popular composer on disc and in the concert hall, and I wonder why. Like the music of Shostakovich it can be loud, angry and dissonant, but it uses simple and big effects to appeal to basic emotions. Maybe it is too dissonant for amateurs of Shostakovich, and too simple for amateurs of Bartok, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

The price would seem to make Plasson’s set hard to resist, but it is a very uneven cycle, with great Symphonies No. 1 and 2 and a fine “Liturgique” (No. 3), but badly flawed 4 & 5.

Symphony No. 1. The first movement has all the rage, fury and bite the music requires, if not quite the detailed clarity in some of the dense strands of the brass section in the fortissimos. In the slow movement the Toulouse strings may not have the tonal refinement of Dutoit‘s Bavarian Radio Orchestra, but the conductor shows great touches of imagination: note in particular, at 2:15, the way he has the cellos play their chromatically descending 32nd notes as a tipsy glissando. Plasson launches into an urgent Finale, although he loses some of the momentum along the way and (as with Dutoit) the brass in particular lack a touch of crudeness and instrumental pungency (just try the trombone glissandos at 1:03 – it isn’t hard to imagine how much more character they could have). But Plasson concludes with a beautifully appeased coda. Overall, this is possibly the best among the very few recordings of Honegger’s First Symphony (Munch live in 1962 with Orchestra National de France, Baudo, Michel Tabachnik also with Orchestra National, an LP published by the obscure label Inédits de l’ORTF in 1974 and never reissued on CD, Dutoit, Rozhdestvensky, Luisi and the recent Dennis Russell Davies are the others I’ve heard)

Likewise, Plasson offers an outstanding Second Symphony (Symphony for strings), and one that stands out not only in interpretive quality, but also for being the only one I know (among circa 20) that does WITHOUT Honegger’s ad libitum trumpet in the Finale – something that is absolutely not acknowledged in the liner notes (in the Gemini twofer reissue, which is the edition I have), which absurdly refer to “the Second Symphony for string orchestra with trumpet” and to “the promise of deliverance being proclaimed by an eloquent trumpet chorale at the very end”. But in fact, in Honegger’s conception, it is not a “trumpet” chorale, it is a first violin chorale with the trumpet used at the performers’ discretion (ad libitum) just to support the violin chorale so that it doesn’t get covered by the thick polyphony of the accompanying, same-timbre instruments. Well, obviously Plasson doesn’t need it, and the violin chorale comes out perfectly clearly, if not with the triumphant and radiating brilliance afforded by the trumpet.

Indeed, Plasson’s recording benefits from a wide stereo spread, bringing maximum clarity to Honegger’s string parts, with the violins clearly on the left and cello and basses on the right (and some traffic noises in the background, which you can hear in the softest passages of the other symphonies as well). For instance, in no other version except those performed by chamber orchestra (Jean-François Paillard in 1965, Paul Sacher twenty years later, both on Erato, the first sadly never reissued on CD, and the second available only in a hard-to-find Japanese edition, or Jesus Lopez-Cobos with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra on Chandos) have the pizzicatti violins that open the third movement registered so clearly and felicitously. Interpretively, after a deliberate and brooding “molto moderato” introduction to the first movement in the manner of Karajan, Plasson takes an Allegro proper that is dynamic enough, more animated than Karajan’s, Ansermet‘s, Dutoit‘s or even Munch‘s last version from 1967 with Orchestre de Paris, if not displaying the same and unique kind of raging fury as Munch with Boston in 1953. But, more important still, he has his strings play with great bite and crispness of articulation (which Karajan, Ansermet and Dutoit did not), and the little rhythmic accompanying figures of first violins and basses (sixteenth-note followed by eighth-note triplets), that invisibly but so essentially contribute (or don’t) to the music’s bite, register here better than in most other recordings. Plasson conducts a very slow, brooding, mourning second movement (even slower than Karajan‘s, who in 1969 had established a new standard in the respect), but as beautiful as it is, it doesn’t quite generate the same level of intensity as Karajan’s, because the strings aren’t as close and full as those of the Berlin Philharmonic, and I would have liked for the long cello melody at 1:07 to come out more prominently. But the inner voices come out with particular clarity, and the basses are never muddy. Karajan led a very urgent Finale in the style of Munch, Plasson is more held-back in the tradition of Ansermet, but like him he offsets any sense of sluggishness thanks to the very robust articulation of his strings, and here the violas at 3:04 come out with more striking presence and power than other version I’ve heard. Listeners might react negatively to the absence of the customary and expected trumpet, but at least Plasson offers the additional interest of being, among all those I know, the only one to exercise that option.

In the “Liturgique” (No. 3), Plasson offers a great first movement, suitably urgent and raging (at various points the trumpets threaten to go rhythmically astray), played with a rarely heard bite and total commitment from the Toulouse players, and whose only drawback is that some important horn melodies do not come out prominently enough. Honegger’s scoring there is very dense, and it is as if the EMI-France engineer had not known where on the tape to stack so much sonic information. Well, the Czech engineers working for Serge Baudo in 1960 (see link above), the Soviet one(s) of Mravinsky live in 1965 and those of Karajan in 1969 (see link above) found a way.

Plasson takes a very expansive view of the slow movement, following not the (faster) metronome indication of the score but the model of Honegger as interpreter of his own work (in circa 1947-48, best found on Music & Arts CD-767) and of Karajan, but less radical than the latter, and within the approach I find him less convincing also than the Austrian conductor, because his sonics are considerably less present, environing and potent and generate less tension and dramatic impact. Ultimately, Plasson doesn’t convince me that every minute of this, to my ears, very problematic movement, which I find overlong and diffuse, is absolutely necessary. His choice of tempo in the Finale is midway through the urgent Munch and Mravinsky (or, more recently, Järvi and, the most urgent of all, Jansons) and the more deliberate (but closer to Honegger’s metronome indication) Ansermet and Karajan (the latter spot on Honegger’s indication), and in fact, at a metronome beat of circa 100, he is very similar to Honegger‘s own recording (Jean Fournet in 1993 on Denon is another dimension, see my review for the details). The sonics afford fine instrumental character on the solo instruments (just try the bass clarinet at the beginning), but the movement doesn’t generate the same kind of tension as either, on two opposite poles, Mravinsky or Karajan, not so much because Plasson is so perfectly middle-of-the-road (although it plays a role) as because his sonics are less present, potent and impactful. It is a Finale you observe from a distance and with some detachment, rather than being engulfed in it. But it ends with a beautifully appeased Adagio (6:56), in which the fact that it is a SOLO cello underpinning the opening violin melody rather than the full section playing pianissimo registers better than in any other recording, before or after, until Luisi‘s (1999).

But then, Plasson’s Fourth Symphony is very problematic. It isn’t only that he takes a very spacious view of the first movement, more than anybody before him or, for those I’ve heard (most), after, although it conveys an excessively smooth and mellow view of the music, when not slightly narcotic: the 4th may be Honegger’s most gentle, playful and pastoral symphony, but it isn’t a reason to let it go slack and soften its edges – on the contrary. But Plasson is also one of those conductors who doesn’t seem to see further than the next bar: he goes for instant expression, not only disregarding the subtle relationships established by Honegger between the normal Allegro tempo and the slight relaxation of it (but many including Munch do also), but playing go and stop with the tempi (and so did Munch), taking every pretext to excessively slam on the breaks, which sentimentalizes the music (try at 4:31 for instance, the sonata-form’s second theme, where Honegger instructs no slow-down whatsoever) and loses the forward flow and the cogency of the architecture. The sonics also excessively favor the strings, to the detriment of woodwinds and brass, which lack vividness, character and impact, and sometimes don’t even register.

Plasson, like everybody else I’ve heard except Ansermet (see link above, with Symphony No. 2), takes the Larghetto slower than Honegger’s metronome indication (though not as radically as Munch), underlining its funeral character, and the music allows for it. But Plasson’s bass articulation in the quasi-passacaglia at the very beginning is heavy and slack: compare to the bite of Baudo (who opens at the same tempo, although Plasson imperceptibly animates more in the course of the movement): it simply isn’t in the same class. But the Toulouse violins are suitably tender and lyrical. With all that, Plasson leads a truly excellent Finale, held back in tempo (even slightly slower than the composer’s rather deliberate metronome mark) and on the opposite pole from the urgent Munch, but in fact very close to the pioneering version of Georges Tzipine in 1954 (not reissued on CD), and now with plenty of instrumental character, suitably raucous when erupts the “Basler Morgenstreich” tune at 7:19, and a beautifully slow and hushed final “Adagio” section at 8:10. But too late to make up especially for the flawed and misconceived first movement.

Symphony No. 5 “di tre re”. By starting with the opening quasi-chorale at a tempo significantly slower than Honegger’s already slow metronome mark (48 quarter notes/mn – Plasson is at 40 or under), and with very legato phrasings from his strings, Plasson romanticizes the character of the music (and allows for small glitches, lack of unanimity of ensemble). He partially makes up for his very deliberate pacing through the tight rhythm he demands of his trumpet players in the build-up to the movement’s climax from 4:04 onwards, but still he leads a first movement that, depending on one’s reaction, you can be described as “brooding”, or lazy and sluggish, and I can give no more graphic demonstration of it than by indicating that, while all the other versions, from Munch‘s pioneering recording in 1952 in Boston  (see link above, with Symphony No. 2) to Järvi in 1992 (link above with Symphony No. 3), take the first movement in anywhere between 7:20 and 7:50, Plasson is at 9:05. And as long as you are going for the “other” view, I prefer Fabio Luisi‘s even more extreme reading in 1999, turning the movement into a slow, burdened Funeral march (link in first paragraph).

But whatever you think of Plasson’s first movement, it doesn’t establish much contrast with the next one, a combination of a scherzo and a slow movement, in which, again, Plasson’s very moderate tempo lends a very brooding character to the slower section. I can’t really take exception with Plasson’s choice here, since it conforms to Honegger’s metronome indication and to the tradition established by Munch and Markevitch in the 1950s (although Plasson is at the slower end). But Munch live in 1964 with Orchestre National (published by Disques Montaigne, reissued by Valois), Baudo and especially Järvi have shown the benefit of taking the movement at a faster pace, which makes the Scherzo moments a true Scherzo rather than a lumbering one, without losing anything of the character of the lento sections. And on top of all that, Toulouse’s weak brass section deprives the climactic fanfare at 5:24 of any impact. Here it sounds like they’ve been given a dose of narcotics and are trying to fight the crushing hand of sleep. The Finale is better, although by dint of the sonics or the instrumental qualities of the various orchestral sections (a combination of both I think), it lacks the touch of crudeness that the “Allegro marcato” requires. The best endorsement one can give it is to say that every compositions needs the “alternative interpretive view”, but be aware that you will get a very partial view of Honegger’s Symphony and even, in the first movement, a very distorted one. In fact, in a similar style, Rozhdestvenstky is much better (link above with Symphony No. 1), and even Luisi has the merit and interest of an even more extreme approach.

Until I checked on Wikipedia, I had thought that a “Pacific” was a brand name, like Porsche or Boeing, and 231 the model number, like 911 or 747. Not at all. In steam locomotives, the digits 2-3-1 describe, in French classification the number of axles, of leading wheels, powered driving wheels and trailing wheels (the English classification is based on number of wheels, so a 231 is a 4-6-2), and all 231s are also known as “Pacifics”. Honegger described the machine he had in mind as a “high-speed”, “heavy locomotive”, saying that his goal had been not to paint the actual sounds of the machine but to translate in musical form the physical impressions elicited by it. Plasson’s engine starts slow as it should but never gains much momentum – this one would NOT have won the East Coast to West Coast race – but it does have the heavy-weight quality required (hear for instance the trombones at 1:00). The sonics are something of a mixed bag, some details come out with felicitous vividness (like those trombones), some others lack a touch of impact. But Plasson’s reading does stand out also for a few details of phrasing that he gets absolutely right, one of the rare interpreters to do so since the composer’s recording in 1931, like the sforzando accents on the opening string harmonics and stopped horn.

All in all this is a mixed bag then, excellent in Symphonies 1-3 and very flawed in the two last ones. The great news is that you can find Symphonies 1-3 on a single CD (see heading). But for a complete cycle, Luisi is very problematic because of his adoption of uniformly slow tempos throughout, Dutoit is overall fine although lacking a touch of bite, rawness, even brutality in his brass to fully convey the anger and rage of the music, but he has a huge miss with his elegant rather than dramatic Second. So Baudo remains the best choice, with, still today, some of the best versions of some of the symphonies or movements and with no big miss or problem like Dutoit’s Second Symphony or Plasson’s 4th and 5th – although all the Supraphon reissues are sonically flawed in their transfers of either the First or the Fourth symphony, see my review for details on that.


Comments are welcome