Arthur Honegger: Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique”, Chant de Joie, Horace Victorieux. Basler Sinfonie-Orchester, Paul Sacher. Pan Classics 510 053 (1992), originally no barcode, then barcode 7619948005324
Recorded March & May 1992 at Volkshaus Basel
Accord 203 022 (1995?), barcode 3229262030229 :
Pan Classics 510 123-3 “In Memoriam Paul Sacher” (3 CDs) with works of Lou Harrison, Rudolf Kelterborn (1999), barcode 7619990101234:
Important testimonies by an important Honegger champion – but unfortunately the interpretations are rarely special
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 8 August 2013
Conductor and wealthy patron of music Paul Sacher is an essential figure of 20th Century music. He put the wealth of his wife, an heiress to a great Swiss chemical company, not into wine bottles, yachts, villas and soccer teams, but into commissioning hundreds of works from among the most prominent and famous 20th century composers, Richard Strauss, Bartók, Honegger, Martinů, Frank Martin, Stravinsky, all the way to Dutilleux and Henze (and many lesser names). Without him, 20th century music would have been very different, and graced with a lot less masterpieces.
Sacher was also, with Munch, one of Honegger’s closest friends and one of his greatest champions. Among the works he commissioned (or that were commissioned through his agency) were the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Symphonies, Concerto da Camera, La Danse des Morts and A Christmas Cantata, and he premiered all those but the 3rd (Sacher very generously let Munch premiere that one, in accordance with Honegger’s wish). So any recording of Honegger by Sacher is significant. Still in the 78rpm era he made a recording of the not very significant Prelude-Arioso-and-Fughetta on the name BACH (an arrangement for strings by Honegger’s collaborator Arthur Hoérée of a piano piece, Columbia LZX 10, circa 1945) for French Columbia and, in the early LP days, of the late compositions of Honegger Suite Archaïque and Monopartita for French Pathé (EMI) and of the Christmas Cantata for Philips (the latter in 1954, just prior to the composer’s death, link will open new tap to entry on Discogs.com) – all three have been reissued on 2 CDs by Forgotten Records (transferred from the LPs, not from the original tapes) but those are sold only on their website. There was also, in the late LP days, on an obscure Swiss label, his version of Concerto da Camera, that to the best of my knowledge has not been reissued on CD, and Erato recorded the 2nd Symphony for strings in 1985, part of a three-LP set in homage to Sacher (which reissued also the Christmas Cantata), of which only the Honegger, Bartók’s Divertimento and Stravinsky’s Concerto in D were reissued by Erato-Japan on CD (ECD 75545), rarely listed anywhere. But the Sacher Foundation in Basel has kindly confirmed that no recording of the 4th Symphony, the “Delights of Basel”, was ever publicly released, although they have one in their private archive. A pity: it would seem ideally suited to Sacher and his various chamber orchestras, Collegium Musicum Zürich or Kammerorchester Basel. I think I have a broadcast recording on cassette tape of Danse des Morts conducted by Sacher somewhere in my mess, but there is no published recording.
So the three works gathered on this disc, recorded in 1992 with the Basel Symphony Orchestra (Sacher died in 1999), are important additions to Sacher’s Honegger discography and significant testimonies, bringing together one of Honegger’s most popular and recorded compositions (Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique“) and two of his rarest on disc.
That said, for all his legitimacy in Honegger, Sacher’s recording of the 2nd Symphony for Strings on Erato was very disappointing, one of the most faithful to Honegger’s metronome indications but one of the most tensionless versions I have heard. The interpretations here are not always special either. In the “Liturgique“, Sacher leads a good first movement, with fine sonics and great instrumental clarity, lacking only the touch of breathless urgency and instrumental impact of the best versions, Serge Baudo (1960, part of his complete traversal with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon), Mravinsky (live 1965, Melodiya), Järvi (Chandos 1992), Jansons (EMI 1993) – and add the unexpected and obscure Johannes Winkler from East Germany, reissued on Berlin Classics 0030982BC with Nielsen’s 5th Symphony – and, in a radically different interpretive approach, Karajan. It is typical that Baudo and Jansons should shave off a full minute in the movement’s total duration compared to Sacher. Of that first movement, “Dies Irae”, Honegger said that “violent themes come in quick succession without giving the listener a moment of respite. Impossible to breathe or to think“…. Sacher lets you breathe and think.
The great Honegger biographer Harry Halbreich, who also authors the CD’s liner notes, calls the slow movement one of the greatest inspirations of Honegger, I call it one of his most problematical movements. The composer himself said it had given him much trouble, trying as he was to develop a melodic line without using the customary methods and formulas, one that would “go forward without looking back“, extending “the initial curve without repetition or stops“. It obviously aims at nobility and pathos, but I hear unmemorable themes that sound naively pastoral (“how hard it is to put a prayer without hope into human mouths“) and short-lived climaxes, making the movement sound overlong and somewhat diffuse. Karajan made it work, by taking a very spacious tempo, way below the score’s metronome mark, majestically unfolding the music like a calm and imposing river. Mravinsky and Munch (on Multisonic 31 0025-2, a live performance given in Prague with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in September 1956 and the conductor’s only recorded testimony in the composition which he premiered) made it work, by adopting a very flowing tempo and giving great dramatic impact to the climaxes (and the small cut exercised by Munch didn’t do any harm either). Sacher eschews the deliberation of Karajan, the music flows naturally and songfully if a little more leisurely than under the baton of Mravinsky and Munch. But the sonics are a bit distant and dynamics seem compressed, they don’t let you be really be immersed in the music as they do with Karajan or Mravinsky, you hear as if “from outside”, which deprives the climaxes of some impact. And if you think my comments about the sonics in the first movement are somewhat contradictory with those in the Adagio, so did I, re-reading myself, and I listened again. But so it is, the first movement is loud and brassy and there the sonics seemed fine, but the Adagio is something else. And the same problem handicaps the Finale, taken at a fast march tempo, considerably faster than the score’s metronome indication of 88 quarter-notes per minute (which Karajan observed spot on, lending the music a great sense of implacability) but slower than the much faster beat of 112 suggested by Honegger in a manuscript performance note mentioned by Harry Halbreich in his biography, and followed by Munch, with Mravinsky taking an even faster pace and Jansons the most extreme of all. Sacher is in fact very close to the tempo adopted by the composer himself in his recording from circa 1948 (see my review of Music & Arts’ “Honegger conducts Honegger”). That in itself is not a problem, but what is again are the compressed sonics and lack of impact of the instrumental details. It is very typical that the important snare drum that erupts between 5:27 and 5:58, which can contribute so much to the impact and can have a suffocating “Nielsenian” intensity (I’m referring here to Nielsen’s 5th Symphony) – and does with Karajan or Mravinsky -, hardly registers here. Also, when comes the concluding Adagio, Sacher adopts a very flowing tempo, close to Honegger’s very swift metronome mark (the composer was much slower in his recording), which deprives the music of some of its ethereal beauty, better heard with Karajan, Järvi or Plasson (EMI) at a far slower tempo. This version would be fine if there were no other choices. But Karajan, Mravinsky, Järvi, Jansons and even Winkler (the five best versions in my opinion, with Karajan in an interpretive category of his own, because of his always very deliberate tempi and massive potency), but also Baudo, Plasson, Dutoit, Luisi (all fine, each with some flaws in this or that movement) all offer better options – not to mention Jean Fournet in 1993 on Denon, very close to Karajan in the first two movements, but in another dimension in the Finale, and who for that reason cannot be recommended as a first option, although his recording is a must-hear for the serious Honeggerite.
Supposedly the conductor leads the orchestra and not the other way around, but for the anecdote it is interesting to observe that when Dennis Russell-Davies recently recorded the same “Liturgique” with the same orchestra, in 2012 (on the orchestra’s label, Sinfonieorchester Basel SOB 02 – no jest please…), he adopted tempi that were strikingly similar to Sacher’s:
1st movement: Sacher 7:13, Russell Davies 7:23 (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).
Chant de Joie is an early and short Symphonic poem of Honegger from 1923, predating Pacific 231 by a few months, pleasant but not Honegger’s best inspiration, illustrating his preference for simple if not simplistic A-B-A forms (vigorous and loud / appeased and pastoral / loud and vigorous) and with a touch of naïveté in its thematic inspiration. Sacher plays it with more refinement than Serge Baudo (not available in the Supraphon set of the complete symphonies that was issued in the West, only on a single CD with Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5, or in the Japanese set, see my review, link above), and his slightly more animated tempo in the outer sections is welcome. Honegger wrote “vigorous and rhythmic” but it is better to translate that, as Sacher does, into “gruff Swiss merriment” than into “massive and elephantine”. But no version, including Scherchen‘s (on Westminster, from 1954), lives up to the old Decca recording of Robert Denzler with Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, from 1955 (I have it on LP, and Forgotten Records had also transferred it to CD – link will open new tab to their catalog -, but in 2015 it was finally reissued to CD in state-of-the-art transfers, on Decca’s mammoth 53-CD set “The Decca Sound – The Mono Years”, 478 7946, barcode 028947879466). There, it makes sense that Honegger titled his piece “Song of Joy”.
Although subtitled “Symphonie mimée”, Horace Victorieux, completed in 1921 after the Roman legend of the Horatii and Curiatii recounted by Livy and adapted by Corneille in one of his most famous plays, was in fact conceived as a ballet, although it was premiered (by Ansermet) as a symphonic poem. “Mimed” symphony then in that the music very graphically depicts (rather than mimics) the situations, climaxing in the combat between the three Horace and three Curiace brothers and the concluding murder of Camille by her brother, the victorious Horace, where the massive orchestral blows irresistibly recall the murder of Aegisth in Strauss’ Elektra. “Horace victorieux” is typical of the raw, aggressive, dissonant Honegger of the 1920s and early 1930s, from the Tempest-Prelude to the First Symphony and Mouvement Symphonique No. 3, and it flirts even with the expressive and tortured lyrical atonalism of the New Viennese School, especially Berg. It is a great piece (for listeners for whom Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, Varèse’s Amériques or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring don’t seem too aggressive). Sacher benefits from his fine sonics, and develops fine atmospheres in the atmospheric moments, like the “très lent”, very slow section that opens immediately after the introduction, track 6, depicting “Camille and Curiace”, but animating enough in the climaxes so as not to lapse, like Thierry Fischer on Hyperion and to an extent Plasson on DG, in a feeling of placidity. The more biting moments, like the Entrance of the Horaces, “Rhythmic”, track 7, or the various preparations to the combat, tracks 8 & 8, are played with animation and bite and avoid the kind of plodding with which Plasson and Fischer, at various points, characterize them, but it is Sacher’s combat proper, track 10, that trudges and lacks the bite and trenchant of Fischer’s, to say nothing of the raging fury of Michel Tabachnik (in the composition’s premiere recording, with Orchestre National de France, in circa 1973, on the small label Inédits de l’ORTF, not reissued on CD): this is more the jousting of heavily armorded medieval knights than ancient Roman warriors donned with, one supposes, mini-skirts and gladiae. But the conclusion, from the Triumph of Horace to the murder of Camille, is fine – although, in all four versions of the piece, I can easily imagine an even more violent murder (and it should be): all four performances take Honegger’s indication “très large” as an excuse to play very spaciously indeed, but the metronome indication shows that Honegger’s notion was much more urgent than that. I can imagine what Scherchen or Toscanini would have done with that ending. There is yet no ideal recording of Horace, but despite his slightly disappointing combat Sacher provides a very good one, and it has the additional advantage over Plasson’s that all the movements get a cue, making it easy to follow the story.
And in fact a great version of Horace does exist: it is the one you can make for yourself by combining on iTunes the five first tracks of Sacher and the four last ones (starting with the combat) of Fischer. The two segue perfectly.
My copy of Pan Classics comes without barcode, but apparently there is also a release from Pan Classics with the barcode indicated in the heading.