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Honegger: Symphonies 2-4, Choral Works; Martin: In Terra Pax / Ansermet

Honegger / Ansermet / Orch Suisse Romande
Release Date: 03/28/2012 
Label:  Eloquence   Catalog #: 4802316   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Arthur HoneggerFrank Martin
Performer:  Marie-Luise de MontmollinSuzanne DancoPauline MartinMichel Hamer,   ... 
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande OrchestraLausanne Youth ChorusVillamont College Little Choir,   ... 
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HONEGGER Symphonies: Nos. 2–4. Pacific 231. King David . Christmas Cantata. MARTIN In Terra Pax Ernest Ansermet, cond; Suzanne Danco (sop); Marie-Lise de Montmollin, Pauline Martin (mez); Michel Hamer (ten); Stéphane Audel (nar); Vaudoise Natl Church Children’s Ch; Pierre Mollet (bar); Lausanne Youth Ch; Lausanne RCh; Villamont College Little Ch; Ursula Buckel (sop); Marga Hoffgen (mez); Ernst Haefliger (ten); Jakob Stampfli (bs); Union Chorale; Lausanne Women’s Ch; Suisse Read more Romande O DECCA 480 2316 (3 CDs: 223:37)

The lengthy tenure of Ernest Ansermet with the Suisse Romande Orchestra amounted over the years to an exercise in what you might call “the loyal opposition.” In a century that found orchestras striving for ever bigger weight and impact, Ansermet was content to produce a warm, romantic, but somewhat lighter sonority than his German counterparts—and even at times his Francophone ones. Though thought of in his youth as a musical revolutionary and considered throughout life an authority on Stravinsky, Ansermet did not adopt the cold, sardonic, and pointillistic attitude toward melody and sentiment audible in the work of most new-music advocates. Nor did he seek to overwhelm. Individual moments of grace, delicacy, and clarity were more the order of the day, and beneath everything a Swiss sense of coziness.

Mentioning this amounts to a forewarning of sorts, as well as an appreciation. These reissued performances of the Honegger symphonies are classic and well known. They are beautiful and, given the era in which they were recorded, sonorous. But they are also comfortable and not especially powerful. If your view of the Second Symphony amounts to bleak tragedy, then you will probably enjoy more completely Munch’s terrifyingly intense Boston Symphony rendition from 1950. And if you want more weight, Karajan and Jansons will be your ticket to ride. With modern sound as a priority, Roman Brogli-Sacher’s recordings with the Lübeck Philharmonic on Musicaphon are the closest modern equivalent to Ansermet’s approach.

Indeed, Brogli-Sacher’s Second and Fourth symphonies are, if anything, cozier and more beautifully phrased than Ansermet’s. They have become my favorites. The Third Symphony has not lacked intense advocates, and it may suffer the most from Ansermet’s Panglossian stroll through it. Jean Fournet and Neeme Järvi, both well recorded, find more sheer power and horror in the piece. Fournet’s slow tempo in the finale is especially effective, and when the great final climax occurs, overwhelming. Pacific 231 , Honegger’s iconic locomotive tone poem, receives a curiously fast rendition from Ansermet, too light even for him. As heard here, this is a toy train. One suspects Honegger didn’t have Lionel in mind.

King David is one of those youthful “burst-on-the-scene” works, more discussed than listened to, like Walton’s Façade . It amounts, in a sense, to the equivalent of a model’s portfolio, and its main effect is to dazzle with a sense of what the composer might be able to do later, if he weren’t trying to do everything at once right now. King David is essentially a pageant piece with everything but the kitchen sink thrown into it. You hear hints of the lyrical Honegger who would one day compose the Pastorale d’été , but interestingly, few of those sandy grinding chords for which he would become known and would give his music its recognizable profile. Along the way, Honegger appears at times to prefigure Kurt Weill. It is definitely clever stuff. But the most notable feature of the work is its narration.

Narrated music, I find, has a difficult time crossing national boundaries. I wouldn’t want to hear King David delivered by Henry Fonda, nor the Lincoln Portrait read by Stéphane Audel, who performs here. Accents and language are terribly nation-specific. And the attempt to infuse instrumental music with cinematic drama through the use of narration, let us be blunt, tends to evoke snickers. But once you get past them, one has to admit that Audel does a nice job of it. In French, that means maintaining a sense of irony through the melodrama—and Audel manages to remain above the fray. The only remaining debate revolves around balances. If you know the words, it will be too loud. If you don’t, and you probably won’t, it is just right.

The performance itself is classic Ansermet, easygoing and right. I’m not sure I don’t find Suzanne Danco’s vibrato a bit wide and her voice a touch dry at this stage in her career, but otherwise the soloists and choral work are fine and musicianly.

There is a similar enjoyable rightness to be found in Honegger’s Christmas Cantata, as delivered here. The piece concludes with a memorable children’s hymn, which is probably the reason for its place in the repertoire. Both it and Frank Martin’s In Terra Pax are designed to celebrate the restoration of peace, but I find Martin doesn’t succeed, despite pleasant choral effusions, in writing anything the listener will long remember. Martin would later proceed to compose in a more dodecaphonic direction, including a thorny 12-tone symphony. But as elsewhere, the performance here is beyond reproach.

The best work of the Suisse Romande Orchestra is always worth noting. This under-appreciated group, which, heard live, could barely manage the notes and sounded like cats being herded, is nonetheless responsible for some of the most musical recordings ever made. It is nice to have it back.

FANFARE: Steven Kruger
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 "Deliciae basiliensis" by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1946; France 
Symphony no 3 "Liturgique" by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945-1946; France 
Symphony no 2 for Trumpet and Strings by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; France 
Le roi David by Arthur Honegger
Performer:  Marie-Luise de Montmollin (Mezzo Soprano), Suzanne Danco (Soprano), Pauline Martin (Mezzo Soprano),
Michel Hamer (Tenor), Stéphane Audel (Spoken Vocals)
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1921; France 
Cantate de Noël by Arthur Honegger
Performer:  Pierre Mollet (Baritone)
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra,  Lausanne Youth Chorus,  Villamont College Little Choir  ... 
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1953; France 
In terra pax by Frank Martin
Performer:  Pierre Mollet (Baritone), Jakob Stampfli (Bass), Marga Höffgen (Alto),
Ernst Haefliger (Tenor), Ursula Buckel (Soprano)
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra,  Lausanne Womens Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944; Switzerland 

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