Honegger’s “Judith” a Great Find!

Judith

HONEGGER: Judith. MILHAUD: La Creation du Monde / Netania Davrath, Blanche Christensen, sopranos; Madeleine Milhaud, narrator; Salt Lake City Symphonic Choir; Utah Symphony Orchestra; Maurice Abravanel, conductor / Vanguard Classics OVC-8088

I was poking around online for different stereo recordings of Milhaud’s famous La Creation du Monde when I ran across this gem: a one-act opera by Honegger that I’d never heard of before. So I started listening and was stunned by the music’s originality, creativity and emotional pull. As a result, I began searching for alternate recordings to compare it with. But guess what? This is the only recording of it ever made!

Why? Well, as it turns out, the music is not as consistently visceral as Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, which is recorded fairly often, but it is more dissonant. Those two features, apparently, have made it Jeanne d’Arc’s poor sister, the work no one pays any attention to. But Judith is a great work; it’s just not a great opera. With only two characters, a narrator and a chorus that takes roughly a third of the score, it was a mistake for Honegger to classify it as an opera. He just should have made it a dramatic oratorio like Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher and left it at that.

The music, though a bit more understated than its more famous sister, is gripping. Soprano Netania Davrath, with her pure, straight tone, had a top-quality voice but was not a particularly interesting interpreter. No matter; much of the music speaks for itself. Narrator Madeleine Milhaud, who was both the wife and cousin of French composer Darius Milhaud, was well known as an outstanding actress, and her performance here is first-rate.

So too is that of the Utah Symphony under Maurice Abravanel, surely one of the most underrated conductors of the 20th century. “Stuck” in Salt Lake City for most of his career, he turned the orchestra into one of the finest in the United States and turned out a consistently high level series of recordings for Vanguard that have still not gotten their just due. The one weakness in this performance is the chorus. They’re not large enough, and the men, in particular, sound amateurish. My guess is that Abravanel had a hard time finding choral singers who could negotiate this difficult music, but at least they’re not so bad as to be embarrassing; it just sound like some summer festival pick-up group instead of a great chorale. One online critic claimed that they were consistently flat, but that’s just not so. Heck, we know that there were/are plenty of choral singers in Utah who can bang out Messiah lustily, but working your way through the largely bitonal Judith is a different ball of wax.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and there’s certainly enough quality music in Judith to make this a work you’ll want to hear. As for the performance of Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, it’s pretty good but lacks some of the spunk and drive of the composer’s own recordings (one ancient one in mono and another in stereo). All in all, however, this is a recording you’ll want if you are a fan of 20th-century French music in general or Honegger in particular.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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