Venzago Presents Surprising, Brilliant Honegger

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HONEGGER: “Rugby,” Mouvement Symphonique. Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5 / Berner Symphonieorchester; Mario Venzago, conductor / Musiques Suisses MGBCD 6287

Arthur Honegger, the French-Swiss composer whose work was generally contemporary with Stravinsky’s neo-Classical period, is not nearly as well known or performed nowadays as he should be. His short orchestral tone poem Pacific 231 was a favorite for decades, but this has somewhat fallen into no-man’s land; today, his best-known work is probably the dramatic cantata Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, which has received multiple recordings, although Le Roi David is also performed occasionally.

Here we have three first-class orchestral works by Honegger, the not-entirely-forgotten Fifth Symphony (subtitled “Di tre re”) along with the Third Symphony and a symphonic movement dedicated to the Rugby matches he saw and loved so much in the 1920s. Honegger was a man of action; he loved sport and anything that was loud and fast, thus his dual fascination with locomotives and Rugby. As conductor Mario Venzago puts it, Honegger does not write a dynamics marking at all throughout Rugby, thus it is to be played loud from start to finish! Lovers of contemporary music will enjoy the continually clashing harmonies of which Honegger was so fond, whereas those who prefer more sedate classical music will run for cover. I found it enthralling and exciting.

So, too, is the first movement of the Symphony No. 3 from 1945, subtitled “Symphonie Liturgique.” This first movement is dubbed a “Dies irae,” a reference to the thousands of soldiers and innocent victims who lost their lives in World War II. Interestingly, even as committed a Romantic composer as Ralph Vaughan Williams penned a similarly angst-filled work post-War in his own Sixth Symphony. This was a trend that many classical composers worked out in their minds and hearts, some—like Mieczysław Weinberg—even doing so decades later. “I wanted to depict human existence confronted by the wrath of God” is the way Honegger himself put it. The second movement, “De profundis clamavi,” shows Honegger in a more relaxed vein, at least in the beginning. Though he is no less astringent in his harmonic choices, he does produce a surprisingly lovely, tonal melody upon which the movement is centered, played by the strings. This in itself is unusual since so much of Honegger’s orchestration is geared towards the winds and brass, with the strings often having the function of counterpoint or harmony rather that melody-leading—note, for instance, how this balance returns when the movement turns tense. I should also mention at this point that conductor Mario Venzago and the Bern Symphony play with incredible zest, great transparency of sound and an unflappable rhythmic drive, all important elements in the performance of Honegger’s music.

The last movement, “Dona nobis pacem,” splits the mood between the harsh fatality of the “Dies irae” and the somewhat hopeful, occasionally sunnier second movement, but by and large this is dark music. Perhaps this is one reason why Honegger is not too often played nowadays; most classical music stations want to calm out and cheer up their listeners, as do too many symphony concerts. Honegger’s music is not something you will, or should, fall asleep to. Its edginess is possibly a bit too uncomfortable for modern audiences, who want soporifics, not art that challenges the mind and soul. That being said, the surprisingly soul-calming melody that emerges at the seven-minute mark, initially played by a solo cello, is one of the most beautiful things Honegger ever created, and the ensuing wind passage, though using spike harmonies, is by no means dour and fatalistic.

The Fifth Symphony’s odd subtitle refers to “the three Ds,” the note the tympani plays at the end of each movement. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, it is a symphony depicting implacable fate, but unlike Beethoven, Honegger does not bring us out of the darkness and into the light in the last movement. On the contrary, it is his most consistently dark and fatalistic work, reflecting the illness he had contracted and which was to kill him just a few years later (1955). It was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation in 1950, the year after Koussevitzky himself retired, and thus premiered by Charles Munch, whose own excellent recording of it can be found in my article on Munch. Venzago lacks just a bit of the Gallic elegance Munch could bring to even the most fatalistic music, but is otherwise superb in capturing the score’s feeling. Both conductors, however, capture the fatalistic feeling of the music.

Despite the fatalistic nature of the music, the Fifth Symphony is extraordinarily well crafted, not only displaying the quintessential Honeggerian scoring described above but also a remarkable use of counterpoint and shifting inner voices. The quirky second movement, which is really a scherzo without being called one, has a certain odd humor about it, including an unusual use of muter trumpets. I should point out that although this score is, as advertised, mostly dark in nature, Honegger was never a composer who put much sunlight or smiles in his music. He would never be played on classical music stations that desperately want you to “relax with Ravel,” “cuddle with Copland” or “zone out with Zemlinsky.” Venzago brings out the syncopated figures of the third movement with élan and drives the music forward with terrific propulsion. And of course, the digital sonics are a knockout, even when compared to Munch’s excellent stereo recording.

In short, a great new release of intrinsic worth that will provoke and stimulate the listener.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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