By Ted AYALA
Arthur Honegger: Symphonies Nos. 3 “Liturgical” and 1 Basel Symphony Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies Sinfonieorchester Basel SOB 002 | DDD | List price $18.99
A few weeks ago, I had an exchange online with a musician living in Europe. The subject was whether Arthur Honegger qualifies as a “neglected” or “forgotten” composer. I explained that he certainly seemed the part to me. His music isn’t recorded anywhere near as often as it deserves, is rarely mentioned or cited, and the major works have not been performed for some time in Southern California. To this he replied that Honegger hasn’t been neglected in France, Germany, and Switzerland, referring to those nations as “good Honegger countries.” All three were closely tied to the composer – Swiss by birth, French by adoption, and a musical language as German as it was Gallic – during his lifetime. This new disc, the first issued from the Basel Symphony Orchestra’s own label, is further demonstration that Switzerland continues to honor its native son and greatest composer.
The composer was, at the age of 38, a relative late starter to the symphony. His “Symphony No. 1,” a commission from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was the product of a fully mature composer with a string of successes already behind him. Built on a three-movement plan that he would follow for the rest of his symphonic career, Honegger produced a work that was both chrome-plated, art-deco ode to the machine age, and a warning against the increasing mechanization of human existence. Influences from Stravinsky, Prokofieff (Honegger’s symphony shows more than a passing familiarity with the Russian’s angular “Symphony No. 2”), and Roussel are sublimated and transfigured into a unique voice with a Beethovenian cast. Like Beethoven, Honegger’s orchestration manages to be effective, but without attracting attention to itself. The style is hard, flinty, granitic, serious – like the composer’s raw musical material, but always approachable.
His 1946 “Symphony No. 3 “Liturgical,” programmed first on this CD, is one of the summits of the composer’s achievement and, perhaps, (along with Saburo Moroi’s “Symphony No. 3” and Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ “Symphony No. 6”) the finest musical work inspired by World War II. It is music deeply human and humane; free from bombast and delusion. There are no “good” wars, the music seems to say. For the composer – ever the skeptic – war meant banality, ugliness, and brutality. From his vantage in a Central Europe reduced to rubble, there is no triumphalism or self-pity, only a fragile hope for the future and a lasting peace that never forgets the terrible cost of war.
These recordings by the Basel Symphony Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies are worthy additions to the Honegger discography. Their recording of the “Symphony No. 1” sets a new standard for the work. In the “Liturgical” they face more competition, with Karajan’s late 1960s recording (DG) at the forefront. The dramatic power he and the BPO wring from the work is still remarkable after all these years. The “Dona nobis pacem” has a crushing, monolithic weight that gives way to a coda of celestial bliss. In comparison, Davies and his Basel players are smaller-scaled. Where Karajan’s view is panoramic, Davies focuses on the personal. It is a reading of great vulnerability; the final bars tense with unease before the promise of peace, and the inescapable horror of the past. The Basel Symphony, while not the Berlin Philharmonic, sound outstanding, despite the somewhat too-close micing.
Aside from Karajan are the recordings by Mravinsky (BMG/Melodiya), Munch (Living Stage), Ansermet (Orfeo), de Froment (Citadel), and Cluytens (Arts). The composer himself can be heard – both conducting and reciting the titles of each movement – on a long-deleted Music & Arts disc where the score’s power burns brightly despite the dim sound. To these one can add this Davies disc, a very special disc, and hope that a complete cycle of Honegger’s symphonies is forthcoming from these forces.