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Honegger: Cantate De Noel, Cello Concerto, Etc / Fischer, Rutherford, Gerhardt, Et Al

Release Date: 11/11/2008 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67688   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Arthur Honegger
Performer:  Robert CourtJames RutherfordAlban Gerhardt
Conductor:  Thierry Fischer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of WalesBBC National Chorus of WalesDean Close School Chamber Choir,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HONEGGER Horace victorieux. Cello Concerto. Prélude, Fugue et Postlude. Une cantate de Noël 1 Thierry Fischer, cond; Alban Gerhardt (vc); James Rutherford (bar); 1 Robert Court (org); 1 Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum; 1 Dean Close School CCh; 1 BBC Natl O & Read more Ch 1 of Wales HYPERION 67688 (75:43 Text and Translation)

The French-born Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) was one of the irrepressible gang of composers who banded together under the banner of Les Six , the other five being Poulenc, Milhaud, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey. Also linked loosely to them, though not openly, was Erik Satie. Their shared sophomoric philosophy was one of thumbing their noses at both Wagner and Debussy. But the turmoil and tumult in music, literature, and the arts that rocked Paris in the 1910s and 1920s were broader and deeper than this small handful of players. Circulating in the maelstrom were the likes of Jean Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso, Diaghilev, Chevalier, Gershwin, and Boulanger. Those were heady times.

Early on in their association, in note author Calum Macdonald’s words, Les Six were noted for “an output of flippantly satirical entertainment music and the cultivation of a Franco-American jazz style.” Works such as Milhaud’s La creation du monde and Le boeuf sur le toit —the latter taking its name from a Paris bar, the Ox on the Roof, that became a favorite hangout for many of the aforementioned personalities—were typical of the movement’s aesthetic stance. But over time, the band of merry folk grew apart and moved off in their own directions. Of the six, Poulenc, Milhaud, and Honegger became the most prominent, and the ones whose works still hold the stage today. In Honegger’s case, paradoxically, it is perhaps his works of the least gravitas, Pacific 231 and Rugby , by which he is best known to general audiences. Many of his compositions, however, deal with more serious subject matter and are of significant musical consequence. I am thinking of his dramatic oratorios, Jeanne d’Arc au b_x9E_cher and Le roi David , and his Symphony No. 3, “Liturgique.”

Of the works on this new disc, three have enjoyed previous recordings of merit. A 2007 release of the Cello Concerto on the BIS label with cellist Christian Poltera is magnificent, and I’d be hard-pressed to choose between it and the Hyperion with Alban Gerhardt, which is equally excellent. Une cantate de Noël is still available in two classic recordings, one with Ansermet, a conductor who did much to promote Honegger’s music, and one with Martinon, offering the composer’s popular Pacific 231 and Rugby . Neither, however, holds up sonically to the sumptuous sound afforded by the new Hyperion release. Vying for your dollars in Horace victorieux is another classic recording, this time on Deutsche Grammophon with Michel Plasson. It, too, includes Pacific 231 and Rugby , among other selections. So, except for the Cello Concerto with Poltera, which is complemented by Honegger’s sonatas for cello and piano, if you already have any of the other items on the Hyperion disc on other recordings, you’re going to end up with some duplications. Still, all of these works are truly beautiful, superbly performed and, in my opinion, worth having in multiple versions.

Dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky but premiered in Geneva in November 1921 by Ansermet (Koussevitzky gave its first performance in Paris a month later), Horace victorieux is described as a “mimed symphony after Livy,” having been originally conceived as a ballet based on the Roman legend of the Horatii and the Curiatii. The piece is laid out in nine sections or movements corresponding to the action of the drama; performed as a purely orchestral work, it may be heard as a symphony in a single movement or as an extended symphonic tone poem. Portraying as it does a mythic battle the music is dramatic, action-packed, and cinematic.

The Cello Concerto, composed in 1929, is one of the more attractive additions to the 20th-century cello concerto literature. It surprises me that it hasn’t been taken up by more cellists. Alternately serious, lyrical, melodically generous, jesting, and jazzy, it is a work of both sophisticated wit and sincere emotion. And for good measure, it gives the soloist ample opportunity to show off his or her technical prowess. Alban Gerhardt does it full justice; but as I said above, Christian Poltera matches him point for point.

Another Ansermet premiere was the 1948 Prélude, Fugue et Postlude , an arrangement by Honegger of music from his 1929 dramatic stage work, Amphion , for reciter, solo voices, chorus, and orchestra. The fugue movement demonstrates the composer’s mastery of counterpoint, but the prelude and postlude movements that frame it seem rather less intelligible. Perhaps they are better understood within their original context.

Une cantate de Noël is Honegger’s last work, written for the Basle Chamber Choir and its founder/conductor Paul Sacher, and completed in 1953. Much of the music had been conceived a decade earlier for a Passion play that never materialized, which Honegger then made use of in three Psalm settings for voice and piano. The cantata is in two extended movements with texts drawn from both liturgical and secular sources, and scored for mixed chorus, solo baritone, children’s choir, orchestra, and organ. To the extent that the piece interleaves traditional Christmas carols in French and German with sections from Psalms and the Latin Gloria, by a considerable stretch of the imagination one might compare Honegger’s creation with a work like Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 17th-century Messe de minuit pour Noël . It isn’t until we reach the second part of Honegger’s cantata, however, that anything resembling Jingle Bells or celebratory music at the annunciation comes into play. The first part—dark, foreboding, and dominated by the solo organ—sounds out of place in a Christmas oratorio, which, considering its original destination for a Passion setting, is not surprising.

All round, a very satisfying program that I highly recommend.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Cantate de Noël by Arthur Honegger
Performer:  Robert Court (Organ), James Rutherford (Baritone)
Conductor:  Thierry Fischer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales,  BBC National Chorus of Wales,  Dean Close School Chamber Choir  ... 
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1953; France 
Length: 24 Minutes 5 Secs. 
Horace Victorieux by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Thierry Fischer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Period: 20th Century 
Written: France 
Length: 20 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Concerto for Cello by Arthur Honegger
Performer:  Alban Gerhardt (Cello)
Conductor:  Thierry Fischer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; France 
Amphion: Prélude, Fugue and Postlude by Arthur Honegger
Conductor:  Thierry Fischer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948; France 

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