Honegger: Symphonies No. 3 “Liturgique” & 1. Sinfonieorchester Basel, Dennis Russell Davies. Sinfonieorchester Basel SOB 02 (2012)

Arthur Honegger: Symphonies No. 3 “Liturgique” & 1. Sinfonieorchester Basel, Dennis Russell Davies. Sinfonieorchester Basel SOB 02 (2012), barcode 4260313810024






(gatefold opening)

Recorded live 2-3 March 2011 (Symph. No. 1), 18-19 January 2012 (Symph. No. 3) at the Musiksaal of Stadt-Casino Basel

Originally posted on Amazon.com, 23 June 2013

Good to see that Honegger is still alive – for a composer, death isn’t when the body liberates the soul but when the music ceases to be played and recorded. As far as recordings go, Honegger is far from a popular composer, even among those from the 20th century: compare, say, to Stravinsky, Bartók or Shostakovich, and I’m at a loss to understand why. Sure, Honegger was less of an innovator and trend-setter than Bartók and Stravinsky, and for “uneducated” audiences his music can sound violent and dissonant, but even at its more violent and dissonant it is no more “difficult” than The Rite of Spring or The Miraculous Mandarin or Bartók’s first two Piano Concertos. And Shostakovich? I see many similarities between the two composers. Both can be loud and dissonant, but both use a fairly simple musical language and big effects to appeal to the basic emotions. That may have been why their music was rejected in times when critics and fellow composers (if not the wider audiences) craved more demanding and sophisticated processes. But that’s also the reason why Shostakovich’s music is so popular today. So why not Honegger? Recordings of Honegger’s symphonies were few and far between in the LP era – the First Symphony from 1931 enjoyed its premiere on disc only in the mid-1970s! and it is very typical that Serge Baudo‘s complete cycle with the Czech Philharmonic for Supraphon, begun in 1960 with symphonies No. 2 & 3, was ended only in 1973 with No. 1 and 4, and that if No. 1 was represented at all, at the end of the LP era, it was mainly in the context of recordings of the complete symphonies (Baudo, Plasson, Dutoit). Sure, it is the most violent and dissonant among Honegger’s symphonies, but again no more than Stravinsky’s Rite (which it occasionally evokes in some of its pounding syncopations) or Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin. Symphonies No. 2 and 3 were the most popular then and still now. There was a small flurry of recordings of Symphony Liturgique in the early 1990s, by Neeme Järvi on Chandos, Paul Sacher on Pan Classics, Jean Fournet on Denon, Mariss Jansons on EMI, all in 1992 and 1993, and thereafter new versions only trickled and never on top-tier labels, Alexander Rahbari with the Brussels Philharmonic on Discover International (1997), Fabio Luisi‘s complete traversal for the Swiss Radio in 1999 (Cascavelle), Takuo Yuasa on Naxos in 2004 and Roman Brogli-Sacher live with the Lübeck  Philharmonic on Musicaphon in 2007. Again it is very typical that Naxos, prone to record the most obscure repertoires from all corners and epochs, have only this disc of Honegger orchestral works in their catalog. And don’t even mention the First: even Chandos, who recorded the rest (under three conductors, Järvi, Turovsky and Vasary), left it out.

So it’s good to see Dennis Russell Davies and the Basel Symphony Orchestra tackle that repertoire and keep the Honegger flame alive. The pairing of 1 & 3 is a first on disc, too, if you count out EMI France’s reissue of Michel Plasson‘s Symphonies 1-3 on a single CD, EMI 7 64274-2. On LP there has been 1 & 4 (Baudo), 1 and orchestral pieces (Michel Tabachnik, published in 1974 on “Inédits de l’ORTF”, not reissued to CD). On CD No. 1 has been paired with 5 (Rozhdestvensky on Olympia/Melodiya), with the three Mouvements symphoniques (Charles Dutoit, Erato, first CD edition ECD 88171), or with works by other composers (Munch live in 1962 with Orchestre National, first CD edition on Disques Montaigne, reissued by Valois). 3 has been paired with 2 (Karajan on DG in 1969, Jansons see link above) or 5 (Baudo, reference with my review of the complete set see link above, Dutoit first CD reissue Erato ECD 88045, Järvi link above) or various orchestral pieces (Sacher, Yuasa…), and I’m not trying to be exhaustive.

I like Dennis Russell Davies, a precise and unsentimental conductor that would seem ideally suited to the music of Honegger, and I was eagerly anticipating this disc, so I am sorry to report that his reading of Honegger’s rare First Symphony isn’t a very good one and cannot be recommended. The first movement is acceptable, very transparent in textures and letting you hear all the strands of Honegger’s dense orchestration but – unlike Rozhdestventky – without any artificial spotlighting or aggressiveness, and the orchestra is very precise. But it is also somewhat lacking in tension and, precisely, aggressiveness, glare and dramatic impact, because of a tempo that is slightly too expansive and brass often too smooth. As already mentioned, the reason why Honegger’s First Symphony is a rare work on records and in the concert is that it is not a smooth and comfortable piece, but an aggressive and angry one. But to smooth it out, to make it comfortable and unaggressive is as contrary to its very nature as it would be with The Rite of Spring or The Miraculous Mandarin. Some like their Jalapeño NOT spicy – but what’s the point? That said, this is a movement that can easily appeal to those who’d find The Rite and Miraculous Mandarin too hard on their ears.

Russell Davies’ second movement at least has the merit of originality, since he takes it not only significantly slower than Honegger’s metronome mark but considerably slower than anybody else before him except Luisi: compare his 10:52 to Dutoit’s 9:03, Munch’s 8:58, Baudo’s 8:33, Plasson’s 8:23, Rozhdestvensky’s 8:07 and Tabachnik’s 7:39 who, at 50 quarter notes/minutes, is still six beats slower than Honegger’s metronome! Appreciation will rest on each listener. I find it atmospheric, with great tonal refinement, but also vaguely soporific, turning the movement into a funeral meditation, almost pastoral at times, but depriving it of its undercurrent of nervous inquietude. Partly because of the very slow tempo, the textures are also thick in the climaxes. If you find the movement overlong, don’t blame it on the composer. In the same vein I find Luisi preferable because, though setting off at the same tempo as Russell Davies, he animates to fine dramatic intensity in the middle climax, ultimately shaving almost a full minute off Russell Davies. But if you want to hear it the way Honegger wrote it… you won’t, because Tabachnik’s version has not been reissued on CD. Alas Russell Davies’ pursues the same mood and pacing in the Finale: it benefits from vivid sonics that lend much character to the instrumental details, but that doesn’t make up for the tempo, so cautious as to feel sluggish, lending the music the feeling of a march under valium rather than the jubilant and triumphant atmosphere it should convey. Here again timings are telling: Russell Davies reaches the conclusive “Andante tranquillo” in 6:27, compared to Rozhdestvensky’s 5:57, Tabachnik’s 5:50, Baudo’s 5:46, Plasson’s 5:33, Dutoit’s 5:32, Munch’s 5:16. Disappointment.

The Liturgique is better, because the sonics allow for great instrumental impact in the first movement “Dies Irae” and the Basel musicians play with bite, but again Russell-Davies’ very expansive tempo doesn’t allow for the relentless tension and breathlessness so much in evidence in the urgent versions of Baudo (1960), Mravinsky (live 1965, various editions from Melodiya), Järvi (1992) or Jansons (1993). Again the timings are telling: all those drive their first movement in anywhere between 6:14 and 6:35. Karajan, at 7:00, illustrated a more expansive view but still a formidably potent one, but Ansermet, in one of his last recordings for Decca in 1968, was the true slouch, bled of much tension, at 7:30. Russell Davies takes 7:23. And mind you, not that the timings have determined my subjective reaction; it is my subjective reaction listening to the music which has led me to check on the timings, and find in them some objective basis to my feelings. The slow movement flows naturally, eschewing the extreme of deliberation and massiveness of Karajan, and the climaxes develop fine dramatic impact. Tempo in the Finale is very much “in the norm”, neither uniquely urgent as Jansons nor uniquely deliberate as Karajan (and Honegger’s metronome indication), but the movement comes short of the best ones (Karajan, Mravinsky, Järvi, Jansons – and Jean Fournet, at almost 20 beats under the composer’s metronome, is in a class of his own, see link above) because of a small lack of instrumental impact at various points, and a conclusive Adagio (6:56) that flows at a fastish tempo, not quite the score’s metronome mark (the composer himself was considerably slower in his recording from circa 1948, found on Music & Arts or Alpha) but in that direction, and thus sounds a bit perfunctory.

A final note – and anecdote: I don’t know how much a conductor conducts his orchestra or his orchestra conducts him, but it is remarkable and almost incredible how similar in approach Russell-Davies is to the great Honegger champion and sponsor Paul Sacher (he had secured for Honegger the commission for the 3rd Symphony), conducting the same orchestra in 1992 for Pan Classics (see link above). Of course there is much more to an interpretation than just choices of tempo, but these are essential in shaping the listener’s reception. And just look:

1st movement: Sacher 7:13, Russell Davies 7:23 (and remember, Karajan, who was already very expansive, was at 7:00, the urgent Mravinsky at 6:34, and the most urgent of all, Baudo and Jansons, at 6:14)

2nd movement: Sacher 12:06, Russell Davies 12:16 (for reference, Karajan 14:23, Mravinsky 10:43)

3rd movement to Pesante section (until then tempo remains constant): Sacher 6:14, Russell Davies 6:08 (Karajan 7:00, Mravinsky 5:22)

3rd movement, concluding Adagio section: Sacher 2:59, Russell Davies 3:03 (Karajan 3:48, Mravinsky 3:05).

Unless you are a fan of the orchestra and/or the conductor, or specifically want that pairing (but why? and even then, Plasson would offer a better interpretive choice, and the Second Symphony to boot), I can unfortunately offer no convincing reason to buy this CD, there are better versions elsewhere. Those are live recordings, with very little audience noise, TT is a none-too-generous 55 minutes. Addendum from 16 February 2018: Russell Davies has pursued his traversal of Honegger’s Symphonies with Nos. 2 & 4, Sinfonieorchester Basel SOB 04, barcode 4260313810048 or SOB 05, barcode 4260313810055 (2014). I have no idea why it gets two different editions (and covers). I’ve just bought the cheapest of both. Apparently Russell Davies never completed his Honegger Basel cycle with Symphony No. 5, and now that he is no longer the orchestra’s music director (and even the label seems discontinued, I’ve found no releases past SOB 12 in 2016), there are little chances that he will.

Comments are welcome