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Arthur Honegger: Complete Symphonies

Honegger,Arthur / Philharmonic Orchestra Lubeck
Release Date: 01/22/2013 
Label:  Musicaphon   Catalog #: 56942   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Arthur Honegger
Performer:  Guido Segers
Conductor:  Roman Brogli-Sacher
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lübeck Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Mixed 
Length: 2 Hours 14 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HONEGGER Symphonies 1-5 Roman Brogli-Sacher, cond; Lübeck PO MUSICAPHON 56942 (2 CDs: 134:18) Live: Lübeck 1/5-7/2008, 5/10-11/2009, 3/18-19/2007, 12/19-21/2009, 9/25-27/2010

Arthur Honegger, you might say, was the Swiss Hindemith, as Walton was the English one. All three started out to shock and ended up being warm and institutional. (Well, Hindemith tried to be warm and fuzzy!)

The special talent in Read more Honegger’s music is its ability to convey grit and gloom enjoyably. This is most noticeable in the Second and Fifth symphonies, which seem at first as dark as a prison camp, and in good bits of the Third, which tears itself apart with anguish in the slow movement. But in Honegger’s harmonic world the tragedy is never permanent. Sooner or later something bucolic and sweet pops up like a flower in a bombsite. It is an unusual quality: Imagine Ernest Chausson grafted onto Stravinsky or Shostakovich crossed with Arthur Bliss!

The recording history of the Honegger First Symphony is largely one of boxed sets. There is a simple reason for that. It is a short piece in three movements and more in the nature of a divertimento than a massive symphony. And like early Walton, it is hard music to remember. It whizzes by cleverly, and that is that. Brogli-Sacher’s live performance here is fully up to the challenge, and I don’t think listeners who know the Dutoit recording will be disappointed.

Honegger’s Second Symphony is one of the the 20th century’s most enjoyable depictions of gloom. Composed in the war-encircled Switzerland of 1942, with a hopeful trumpet joining in the proceedings only at the very end, this string symphony fascinates not so much in its expression of war’s tragedy but in the memorable quality of its composition. Whether we contemplate the first movement’s chugging Allegro theme, the halting astringent sighing of the second, or a shuddering otherworldly syncopated section in the finale designed to give anyone the creeps, we are in the presence of first-rate thematic material. Like Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta , the Honegger Second contains many subtle shades of light within the darkness it projects, and it has been the interpreter’s iffy challenge to reveal them.

Charles Munch’s 1950 monaural premiere recording with the Boston Symphony is still with us: stark, tragic, and extremely aggressive, with an almost “Rite of Spring” rhythmic intensity. Such is its power, that one may scarcely miss a softer more luminous side to the work. Munch believed in the symphony, and I was privileged to hear his last New York Philharmonic concert, which included it, in 1967. Subsequent recordings have always seemed a bit wrong-headed to me, however, tending towards lumbering elephantiasis. Both Karajan and Jansons lay on big heavy brushstrokes and seem to encourage nearly baroque terraced dynamics, while sounding slightly stuck in the mud. Ansermet comes across as merely feeble. We’ve become accustomed to hear the piece rather two dimensionally, it seems.

Roman Brogli-Sacher’s kaleidoscopic account, then, is a happy find under the circumstances. Indeed, this is the finest performance I know and is the one I will turn to in the future. The Lübeck Philharmonic has a light and supple touch, recorded at a bit of a distance, but the sound in this set is uniformly good. Only missing is that last iota of sensual refulgence which the extra string desks of Berlin and Vienna would bring to the music.

When we come to the well known Third Symphony, “Liturgique,” the competition gets a bit more impressive. I’m particularly fond of Järvi’s Chandos CD with the Danish Radio Symphony. It begins with what sounds for all the world like a piano falling out of a fourth story window and never lets up in intensity and punch. Brogli-Sacher’s performance is good at the swooping lyricism and bucolic sweetness where he can find it, but not quite heavy enough for the grim marching gravitas of the piece. Another fine performance with a seriously apocalyptic final climax is Fournet’s on Denon.

The Fifth Symphony, aggressive as the Third in places, works a bit better here, being more ruminative overall. In the Fifth, other conductors tend to be too aggressive and slashing for my taste, including Munch, whose monaural LP premiered the piece for American listeners around 1950. Brogli-Sacher catches instead the grainy growl of the music’s brass writing more quietly and lets it flow by like lava. A rather understated performance, though.

As we come to the Fourth Symphony, we have the porridge just right. This is a delightful stroll through Basel and its nearby hills and a truly pastoral performance. The most beautiful music in the symphony slithers into existence about three and a half minutes into the slow movement, as the music seems to escort you down a mountain path towards town, with birds and butterflies rising on all sides before your feet, like lawn shavings. It is graceful, swivvely-swervy and just plain sexy!

Brogli-Sacher perfectly captures the sheer warmth of moments like this. Ansermet, Dutoit, and Jurowski seem to get stuck at such times in Stravinskian stiffness. The walkabout approach works beautifully in this sunlit piece, which winds up quoting In Basel On My Rhine sounding from the clock tower in the central square. The symphony concludes with the sheer domesticity of a door’s closing quietly, followed by the turning of a latch. I’ve never heard a better performance. It is available separately on Musicaphon, paired with a gentle song cycle, Nachall by Othmar Schoeck and Halffter’s Tiento.

FANFARE: Steven Kruger
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Roman Brogli-Sacher
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lübeck Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930; France 
Venue:  Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Musik 
Length: 23 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Symphony no 2 for Trumpet and Strings by Arthur Honegger
Performer:  Guido Segers (Trumpet)
Conductor:  Roman Brogli-Sacher
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; France 
Venue:  Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Musik 
Length: 25 Minutes 28 Secs. 
Symphony no 5 "Di tre re" by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Roman Brogli-Sacher
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; France 
Venue:  Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Musik 
Length: 25 Minutes 33 Secs. 
Symphony no 3 "Liturgique" by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Roman Brogli-Sacher
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945-1946; France 
Venue:  Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Musik 
Length: 31 Minutes 11 Secs. 
Symphony no 4 "Deliciae basiliensis" by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Roman Brogli-Sacher
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1946; France 
Venue:  Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Musik 
Length: 27 Minutes 13 Secs. 

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