Arthur Honegger: Symphonies Nos. 2-4, Pacific 231, Le Roi David, Une Cantate de Noël. Frank Martin: In Terra Pax. Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. 3 CDs Eloquence 480 2316 (2012), barcode 0028948023165
Le Roi David: Susanne Danco (soprano), Marie-Lise de Montmollin, Pauline Martin (mezzos), Michel Hamel (tenor), Stéphane Audel (narrator), Choeur des Jeunes de l’Eglise Nationale Vaudoise
In Terra Pax: Ursula Buckel (soprano), Marga Höffgen (contralto), Ernst Haefliger (tenor), Pierre Mollet (baritone), Jakob Stämpfli (bass), L’Union Chorale de la Tour de Peilz, Choeur des Dames de Lausanne
Recorded at Victoria Hall, Geneva:
Le Roi David: 13-15 October 1956
Christmas Cantata, Symphony No. 2: 30 September-15 November 1961
Pacific 231: 2-8 April 1963
In Terra Pax: September-October 1963
Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4: 5-9 September 1968
Previous and subsequent editions (note: I haven’t sought to list the collection CDs which include Pacific 231):
Le Roi David. Decca / London “entreprise” 425 621-2 (1990), barcode 028942562127
Symphony No. 2, Symphony No. 4 “Deliciae Basilienses”, Une Cantate de Noël. Decca / London “entreprise” 430 350-2 (1991), barcode 028943035026
Le Roi David. Decca “Bouquet” 458 008-2 (1997), barcode 028945800820:
Symphonies Nos. 2-4, Pacific 231, Le Roi David, Une Cantate de Noël. Decca 480 7898 “Ernest Ansermet French Music” (32-CDs) (2016), barcode 0028948078981:
Some Japanese editions:
Le Roi David. London POCL-2197 (1990), barcode 4988005070609:
Symphonies Nos. 2-4 on CD 15 (POCL-9603) and Pacific 231 on CD 16 (POCL-9604) of Ernest Ansermet Edition French Music (16 CDs), London POCL-9589/604 (1994), barcode 4988005153142:
|Symphonies Nos. 2-4: Decca UCCD-3015 (2000), barcode 4988005262172:||Le Roi David: Decca UCCD-3044 (2001), barcode 4988005263575:|
Christmas Cantata with Debussy: Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien: Decca UCCD-4129 (2009), barcode 4988005566034:
Important documentation of an important champion of the music of Honegger – but the interpretations are not an unqualified success throughout
12 February 2018 (written in 2013)
Good to have all of Ansermet’s stereo Honegger finally available outside of Japan and gathered in a single set, with Frank Martin’s oratorio “In Terra Pax” as a substantial bonus. Decca had reissued King David in 1990 and Symphonies 2 & 4 and the Christmas Cantata in 1991 on their semi-budget line “enteprise” (specializing in rare recordings of 20th Century music), but frustratingly the expected Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique” never followed, maybe for want of a suitable pairing (it was finally reissued in Japan in 2000, paired with Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4). Thanks to the ever enterprising Eloquence from Australia to have, at last, repaired the omission.
Ansermet was, with Munch, Scherchen, Paul Sacher and, in the early 1950s, Georges Tzipine, one of the staunch early champions of Honegger (and in that shortlist Koussevitzky should also be included, but alas he has left no recorded testimony of it). Although premiered by Koussevitzky, Pacific 231 is dedicated to Ansermet, and he premiered “Chant de Joie”, “Horace Victorieux”, “Rugby” and the 1948 “Prelude, Fugue and Postlude”. Already before World War II, in the 78rpm era, he recorded “Pastorale d’été” (1934 or 1942, sources differ) and short selections from King David (1929). He also made a first recording of Pacific 231 in 1955, still in the mono LP era, with Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. But it is really in the stereo days and with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande that he was finally able to commit his interpretations of Honegger. Two symphonies among the composer’s five are missing. Not surprising that Ansermet was never asked (or never wanted) to record the First Symphony – it is one of the composer’s most violent utterances (although no more than Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin) and hardly anybody recorded or even played it back then, the first recordings were made in the mid-1970s (Serge Baudo concluding his cycle of symphonies on Supraphon with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra begun more than a decade before, and Michel Tabachnik with Orchestre National de France on the obscure French label Inédits de l’ORTF). It is more puzzling that Decca didn’t ask him to do the 5th Symphony and Rugby (there is a live recording from 1951 of the former with the Vienna Philharmonic on Andante AND4080, barcode 699487408029) . In fact there is, as far as I am aware, no recorded testimony of Ansermet in any of the Honegger works he premiered.
For some reason the Decca Entreprise reissue of King David was very unspecific, if not misleading about the recording date. There was only a P date of 1970. Not so, and Eloquence is forthright about it: the recording was made in October 1956. Symphony No. 2 and Christmas Cantata were recorded in November 1961, Pacific 231 in April 1963 and Frank Martin’s In Terra Pax followed in September-October of the same year. Finally, Symphonies 3 & 4 were taped in September 1968.The latter were among Ansermet’s last recordings, followed only by Alberic Magnard’s Third Symphony and Edouard Lalo’s Scherzo (21-24 September), and Stravinsky’s Firebird in November, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra: the conductor passed away on February 20, 1969 at the age of 85.
The booklet nicely offers reproductions of the early LPs (in thumbnail size, though). The liner notes are the same as on Decca Entreprise for Symphony No. 4, Christmas Cantata and King David, but the respective Christmas Cantata and King David came with complete libretto with English translation, and that’s now gone. The Eloquence set reproduces the notes by Felix Aprahamian for the original LP release of Symphonies 2 & 3, they are detailed and informative for the “Liturgique” but have hardly anything to say about the 2nd. Those from Decca Entreprise were more detailed for Symphony No. 2. But then, Eloquence is the only place where you conveniently find Ansermet’s Liturgique and Frank Martin’s In Terra Pax.
So far so good. Unfortunately, Ansermet’s Honegger interpretations turn out to be not an unqualified success throughout. Start with Pacific 231. In my experience, four things are required to make a great Pacific 231: weight, momentum, a virtuoso orchestra and clear sonics that let all the strands of Honegger’s dense orchestration clearly come out. Of those, Ansermet’s Pacific only has the momentum. It lacks weight, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is far from virtuosic and the woodwinds and brass threaten to lose their bearings at various points, and the 1963 sonics let many important orchestral details get blurred or don’t allow them to stand out with as much impact as they should, and there is saturation and clogged textures in the final fortissimo. Ansermet’s version, originally part of an LP of French early 20th Century orchestral spectaculars (with Bolero, La Valse and Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), enjoys, if I’m not deluding myself, a very positive reputation, but it is very average (maybe the momentum fooled most critics and listeners). It doesn’t hold a candle to the best version of the 60s and still one of the best today: Bernstein’s 1962 recording (on Sony’s Masterworks Heritage MHK 62352 with Milhaud’s Les Choéphores and Roussel’s 3rd Symphony, and also on Sony’s “Bernstein Century” SMK 60695 “20th-Century French Masterpieces”). Baudo’s 1963 recording, included in Supraphon’s complete symphonies, is also excellent, if lacking the propulsion of Bernstein’s.
The 2nd Symphony, from November 1961, despite its great stereo sonics, fails on its first movement. Ansermet strays from the urgent model established by Munch in Boston in 1953 (RCA GD60685 with Symphony No. 5 and Milhaud’s La Creation du monde and Suite Provencale), by taking a very brooding “molto moderato” opening, slower than Honegger’s metronome indication, as Baudo had already done the year before (and Munch too, but in his premiere recording from 1942-44 with Orchestre de la Société des Conserts du Conservatoire) and as Karajan would a few years later, and to very beautiful effect. But where Munch 1 and Baudo, when came the first Allegro, established a strong contrast between the brooding and the biting (Karajan here let some heaviness and thickness in his bass underpinning rob his reading of some of that bite), Ansermet doesn’t: he keeps things very slow-paced, and the slow pace is not relieved by any added crispness and bite of articulation (as Rozhdestvensky did in 1986 on Olympia OCD 212 or Melodiya MCD 212), he keeps the textures thick, conveying an impression of sluggishness. His slow movement is better, its main characteristic being the conductor’s flexibility of tempo, the way he animates the music at 2:44, not remaining throughout in the dirge-like atmosphere of the beginning but bringing it more bite and a sense of revolt, as Munch did. I’m not convinced that it is the solo cello (as Honegger instructs) that plays at 5:37 and again at 6:39, rather than a small group of cellists. The Finale also isn’t rushed (and the tempo is kept rock steady at 3:36 where Honegger instructs an accceleration to “Presto”), but at least here the conductor brings it a fine robustness and crispness of articulation. But the big rallentando on the final descending sixteenth-notes was not absolutely necessary – in fact, it was a very bad idea, it thickens and burdens the final coup rather than make it jubilant.
Likewise, Ansermet’s Symphony Liturgique, from September 1968, despite the great sonics, fails… on its first movement, “Dies Irae”. Of it, Honegger wrote that it depitcted “the day of wrath, the explosion of force and of hatred which destroys everything and leaves nothing but debris and ruins. The hurricane sweeps everything away, blindly and angrily. For the listener there is no time to breathe or think…”. But, while the great sonics and fine instrumental presence and character they afford might give an illusion of power despite Ansermet’s very deliberate tempo, he conducts a polite performance, lacking in any measure the bite, rage and fury that Baudo in 1960 with the Czech Philharmonic (see link above) and Mravinsky live in 1965 with his Leningraders, or, more recently, Plasson (EMI 1979), Järvi (Chandos 1992) or Jansons (EMI 1993) brought to it. Just for an illustration, at 1:19, there is a passage notated “martellato”, reminiscent of the pounding moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Well, I guess it takes having seen the German Panzers charging at you to know how to play a “martellato”, and obviously the Swiss musicians haven’t. Or try the brass sforzandos interjections at 2:05 sounding so much like menacing dog barks: other than the fact that they do they not play together their first chord, their sforzandos are gentle and mellow – even my Chihuaha has a nastier bark. This must be the Swiss view of wrath, destruction and hurricanes, a storm in your teacup. It reminds me of the famous line by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, that the Italian Renaissance was torn by wars and generated Michelangelo, while Switzerland enjoyed 700 years of peace and prosperity and produced the cuckoo clock. In view of that, the fact that second and fourth horns are a bar early at 2:33 and again at 2:51 is menial, and without a score I doubt that any listener will be ruffled by the canonic repetition of horns-then-violas it generates, if even they notice it, since after all Honegger could have written it that way – although he didn’t. Ansermet does the best he can with the problematic second movement – am I alone in finding it overlong and diffuse, naïve and tritely pastoral, one of the composer’s weakest inspirations? – and his sonics provide felicitous clarity and transparency of instrumental textures, but Munch (live with the BSO in Prague in 1956, published by Multisonic and the conductor’s only extant testimony in that work) and Mravinsky have shown how much it gains by adopting a slightly more flowing tempo (although Ansermet is, commendably, already slightly above Honegger’s metronome mark), and animating the short climaxes to more dramatic intensity – and the small cut practiced by Munch did no harm either. But Ansermet’s Finale is cause for regret – regret for what this version might have been if the Swiss players had invested the first movement with more tension. Indeed, that Finale is great, benefiting not only from the vivid Decca sonics affording great impact and instrumental character, but also, for once, from Ansermet’s very deliberate pacing: it is slower than just about every one else’s before (Honegger, Tzipine – on LP French EMI published under label Columbia, not reissued to CD -, Munch, Mravinsky, Baudo), although still faster than the composer’s startling metronome mark of 88 quarter-notes/mn (Ansermet is roughly ten beats above): only the forgotten Robert Denzler leading Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire on a 1955 Decca LP, had taken it at the score’s tempo (finally reissued in 2015 on Decca’s mammoth 53-CD set 478 7946, “The Decca Sound – The Mono Years 1944-1956”, barcode 028947879466). Ansermet lends a great sense of implacability to the music, which, in the composer’s own words, depitcts “the implacable rise of man’s enslavement, of the total loss of his freedom … the march of robots agaist civilized man, holder of a body and a soul…” But, a year later, Karajan (see link above with Symphony No. 2) recorded his own version… and his Finale was more radical than Ansermet’s, like Denzler’s spot on Honegger’s metronome of 88 but with massively potent sonics, and developing an even greater and more crushing sense of implacability. Note that in 1993, Jean Fournet recorded on Denon a version that took it at nearly 20 beats under the composer’s metronome indication – an approach so radical that no serious Honeggerite can skip it.
All this makes it even more frustrating that Ansermet should lead such an excellent Fourth Symphony, one that stands out not only for its clear and detailed sonics, lending fine character to woodwinds and brass and letting you hear reasonably well the different strands of Honegger’s orchestration in the first movement, although there are spots where I find that the woodwinds still don’t stand out enough: to make full musical sense of the movement it is fundamental to hear the circulation of the melody and counter-melodies between the different orchestral sections, and between the different instruments within a section, especially those woodwinds. But even more important, Ansermet is the only version among all those I’ve heard (not that there have been so many recordings) that scrupulously respects Honegger’s metronome indications, in all three movements. That might be a bit TOO literal in the “lento” opening of the first movement, taken at a flowing pace that robs it of some of its “…e misterioso” atmosphere. But, although like everybody else he tends to equate diminuendo and rallentando, Ansermet is one of the rare versions to observe and the one that lets you best sense Honegger’s two tempi in the Allegro proper, the opening “fast” and the slight relaxation of it that occurs at various points (for instance at 3:03, or 7:10). The two other early Honegger champions, Tzipine (French EMI under label Columbia, again lamentably not reissued to CD) and Munch (Erato with Orchestre National, 1967), do not observe these subtle tempo relationships, and neither do Baudo, Plasson (see link above with Symphony No. 3) and Dutoit.
Tzipine, Munch and everybody I’ve heard takes the middle “Larghetto” slower than Honegger’s metronome, highlighting its character of a burdened funeral march – and no one more radically than Munch. No complaint: it is very effective that way. But there is a value also in taking it, as Ansermet, at the composer’s tempo, refusing to milk it and always maintaining the flow, not letting get bogged down under its own weight, and lending it an almost menacing character. The Suisse Romande violins are more passionate than tender. In the nasty, quasi “Sorcere’s Apprentice” dance which constitutes the Finale, it is interesting to note again that those two great Honegger champions, Munch and Ansermet, are on the opposite interpretive poles: Munch urgent, Ansermet deliberate (as the composer instructs). And don’t be fooled by the overall timing, of 8:12 for Ansermet vs 8:26 for Munch: it is because Munch takes the two “Adagio” sections (for which the composer, for once, provided no metronome indication) much slower than Ansermet. Both approaches are legitimate and effective. I have a small preference for Ansermet’s, and not just because it is more observant of the composer’s wishes: as in the Finale of “Liturgique” it conveys more of a sense of implacability.
Again on the positive side of this set, still today, more than 50 years after it was recorded, Ansermet’s Christmas Cantata remains, arguably, the best version. It benefits from the great 1961 sonics, a powerful chorus (so much so that many instrumental details get covered, but it is not so essential), a sure sense of tempi (very close to Honegger’s metronome indications) and wonderfully energetic pacing when needed (nobody has filled the “laudate dominum omnes gentes” chorus/chorale near the end, track 3 at 1:59, with so much triumphant jubilation), and above all, from the contribution of baritone Pierre Mollet. Many versions fail on the baritone, because of impossible foreign accent, lachrymose characterisation, ungainly timbre. But no one, even Camille Maurane (recorded too late in his career with Jean Martinon in 1971) or Gilles Cachemaille with Michel Corboz in 1989, attains the tenderness and nobility of Mollet… not even Mollet, recorded in 1954 with Georges Tzipine and Orchestre National de France, in uncompetitive mono sound and without the same hushed tenderness (on EMI’s Les Rarissimes de Arthur Honegger): with Ansermet, it is Pelleas singing the coming of the Child Jesus. Note that, like everybody before and after and on what authority I don’t know, Ansermet has his choruses alternate between French and German. I see no grounding of this tradition in my Salabert pocket score, which has the text (except when sung in Latin) written on three lines, French, German and English, suggesting that one should be chosen, not a mixture of two. Was it to make the Christmas Cantata an hymn to the French-German post-war reconciliation? Just mentioning this for the record, it isn’t likely to disturb anyone. More exceptionable is that Ansermet attributes the line “Laudate dominum omnes gentes” (CD 2 track 3 at 0:22) not to a solo child voice as written but to the full children’s chorus, singing softly and from a distance: it is effective that way too, but not as touching as when it is a single voice, but it is only one bar. Ansermet also doesn’t observe Honegger’s instruction for the chorus to play “doppio movimento” track 1 at 6:55, he keeps them at the same tempo as before. Again, not that it matters very much: it is even more effective that way, bringing formidable grandeur to these four bars.
I’ll return whenever I can to Honegger’s King David and Martin’s In Terra Pax. Because of Ansermet’s significance as an important champion of Honegger, and because of the rare work of Frank Martin (another composer much championed by Ansermet), this set is indispensable for the serious Honeggerite. But if you are “only” looking for some among the best versions of these works, better go to the original Decca / London entreprise edition with Christmas Cantata and Symphony No. 4.