Les Rarissimes de Arthur Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël, Cris du Monde, Nicolas de Flue, Rugby, Pacific 231. Georges Tzipine, Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion française, Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. (2 CDs) EMI 5 86477 2 (2005), barcode 724358647723
An appeal mainly to collectors – and even then: only those without the original LPs
originally posted on Amazon.com, 3 June 2008
A pity that EMI France has not systematically maintained in the catalog some of the sets they had published in the 1990s in the collection “Les Introuvables”, for which some internet sellers are now asking ludicrous prices. But still, praise them for pursuing their reissue effort in this new collection “Les Rarissimes” and making available again some of the finest collectibles from the late 78rpms and early LP era, from their own archive or the vaults of the French label Ducretet-Thompson.
Unfortunately, this Honegger reissue turns out to be somewhat disappointing. It collates three vocal/choral works, including two rarities in Honegger’s output, and two of the composer’s most famous symphonic poems (Pacific 231, Rugby), all recorded between 1953 and 1957 by Georges Tzipine (one of the composer’s staunchest advocates back then). Except for the Christmas Cantata (originally paired with the Third Symphony) and the two symphonic poems, regularly reissued in budget series, those early recordings had become rarities even in the LP era: “rarissimes” indeed – e.g. very rare -, as no old records are really “introuvables” (impossible to find) , if you put your mind, time and money to it.
Tzipine conducts a great Pacific and Rugby, biting and precise, and here the harsh 1953 sonics and unrefined and glaring tone of Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire’s brass are assets rather than liabilities. The two symphonic poems originally came on the fourth side of a French Columbia set (there were licencing agreements and brand ownership intricacies back then by which EMI-France published under that label) featuring “Nicolas de Flue” (1940), a great patriotic oratorio (“Dramatic Legend”, Honegger calls it) in the vein of King David. The text is by Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985, a Swiss writer and philosopher, quite famous in those days, established in France since 1930 and the author of the seminal L’Amour en Occident / Love in the Western World, 1939), and takes it subject from an episode in the history of Switzerland: Nicolas de Flue (1417-1487) was a hermit who had a pacifying influence when some political tensions threatened the unity of the Swiss Confederation – clearly a feat of veritably universal impact, which led to his canonization in 1947; he should have been awarded a posthumous nobel prize for peace, really. Musically, it is Honegger at his most didactic, nationalistic and preachifying.
Although based on sketches from 1941 for a Passion Play that was ultimately abandonned, the Christmas Cantata is Honegger’s last work of substance. In its first 8 minutes (“De Profundis Clamavi”, From the Depths We Call Thee), very somber and dramatic and very eloquent, you can hear fine musical echoes of “Joan at the Stake”, but it contains also its share of affectedly naïve music, quotes from famous Christmas Carols, children’ choir direct from Sunday school and a few lines sung by baritone that can sound dangerously sentimental. Honegger’s compositional processes are rather elaborate, especially when he mixes different Christmas Carols in counterpoint, but he appeals to the simpler emotions, and the composition is quite effective in its own way. Despite the rather shrill and uningratiating French sopranos, Tzipine’s interpretation might have been a great one, if it hadn’t been for EMI’s distant and unidimensional 1954 mono sonics. As it is, it is a mere document, a distant echo of a great performance. Ansermet‘s 1961 recording remains the great “historical” version of “Cantate de Noël” (first CD reissue in 1991 on Decca/London “entreprise”, 430 350-2, paired with symphonies Nos. 2 & 4), and not many have appeared since that could measure up to it. It shares with Tzipine the same baritone, Pierre Mollet, but he is better with Ansermet, more tender and noble, Pelleas singing the coming of Christ.
The most interesting piece from the lot is the oratorio “Les Cris du Monde” (“Cries of the World”). Composed in 1931 and lasting 54 minutes, it deals with The Human Being (capital letters required, please; this is supposed to be deep and substantial; the text designates it as “The Voice”, alternately sung by soprano and baritone) in search of a goal and a hope in the midst of the shouts and fury of the modern world: factories, crowds, armies. Once again the text by journalist René Bizet is pretty demonstrative and grandiloquent, but the oratorio is musically often powerful, with novel orchestral and choral effects and traversing many moods, often brooding and meditative, stark, somber, with some pounding and rhythmic passages strikingly anticipating “La Danse des Morts“, but also ethereal, angelic, cosmic, grandiose. Of particular note is the composer’s very idiosyncratic and efficient approach to French prosody, with a rhythmic writing often accenting the words’ first syllable rather than the last one as in spoken French, and his use, in particular in the oratorio’s last part, “Voices of Night”, of a quasi-parlando for the chorus, very typical also of Milhaud in his early works, like “Les Choéphores“. That final part, a choral evocation of loud cacophonous crowds, starting at 45:15, is Honegger at his most loud, dissonant, inventive and impressive.
Despite the remastering for CD the sonics in the cantata and oratorios show their age (it isn’t the first time I encounter reissues of material from the early 1950s from EMI-France in which no particular care has been given to sonic refurbishment; but Pacific and Rugby sound better), and while the solo voices do have presence (especially the reciter Jean Davy in Nicolas de Flue), the chorus is as good as incomprehensible. This is especially penalizing, since the liner notes, by the noted French critic Jean-Charles Hoffélé, while providing valuable and fascinating info on the circumstances and financial hurdles of the original recordings, are extremely succinct on the individual works, giving no synopsis, let alone the text. I challenge anybody who doesn’t have the text to know what “Cris du Monde” is about. Furthermore, while “Nicolas de Flue” is appropriately cued, the Christmas Cantata and “Cris du Monde” (the latter 53:38 in duration!) get only their beginning cue, which shows an irksomely slapdash attitude from EMI-France.
Unfortunately the only competing version of “Cris du Monde“, a live recording by Serge Baudo from 1973 in fine stereo, is badly flawed, and not only because it is sung in a Czech translation (The Arthur Honegger Centenary – Volume 1 – The Human Tragedy, with Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique”, Praga PR 250 000). Nicolas de Flue and the two symphonic poems were originally released as LPs in a superb box containing the complete libretto (but without any presentation of the compositions), while Cris du Monde came with a magnificent libretto, printed on vellum paper, with reproductions, on the cover of a cubist painting by Marcoussis, and on the inside cover of a wood etching of Honegger by Marcel Arthaud . There was also the complete text and a long musical analysis by Bernard Gavoty, a famous French organist and critic in those days. Needless to say, for those lucky enough to own these two magnificent collector items, and given the very limited sonic improvement brought forth by these CD reissues, the acquisition of this Rarissime set isn’t mandatory. It is recommended mainly to the other Honegger devotees wanting to complete their itinerary in the composer’s discographic history – but are there many of these out there?
Tzipine was, like Munch and Ansermet, one of the great champions of Honegger in the early 1950s, but unlike them, he didn’t do much else, and I wonder why. EMI-France still have in their vaults his recordings of Symphonies No. 3 and 4 (the latter a premiere recording) and Mouvement symphonique No. 3 (the pendant of Pacific and Rugby). They are great performances, and would make a perfect match on CD. Anybody listening, EMI?
A last note: In reference to the financial difficulties that the original recordings had to overcome, the French notes are titled “une mission de service public” – a public service mission, the typically and idiosyncratically French notion that some activities are so important to the public they should not be subjected to the rules and constraints of market and profitability, but subsidized. This has been translated in English by “A service to the listening public”, evidently losing all the gist of it. How can the French dream of imposing the “service public” to the rest of the world, when it can’t even be correctly translated?