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Hyperion Records

CDA67688 - Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël, Cello Concerto & other orchestral works
Angels of Peace (1948) by Jean Théodore Dupas (1882-1964)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: February 2008
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 2008
Total duration: 75 minutes 7 seconds


'Fischer directs controlled but expressive accounts of all four works which would grace any collector's shelves' (Gramophone)

'Here is an excellent introduction to a still underrated composer … in the Concerto, Alban Gerhardt ranges from the seductive to the sensational: for the opening, Thierry Fischer conjures up a wonderful dream atmosphere, and at the other end of the scale Gerhardt gives a terrific account of Maurice Maréchal's authorised cadenza … [Prélude, Fugue et Postlude] is one of Honegger's great unknown masterpieces, and Fischer's orchestral balance captures perfectly the personal quality of the three majestic chords that open the Prélude—they could be by no-one else' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This beautfully judged account of Honegger's Christmas cantata, his last complete work, makes this collection an appropriately seasonal release. But the three other major works here are fascinating … Alban Gerhardt, who seems to make a speciality of less well known 20th-century cello concertos, is the outstanding soloist' (The Guardian)

'This gleaming new recording … the Cello Concerto is a debonair score with a bluesy turn-of-phrase that suggests Honegger was spinning Duke Ellington records on his turntable. Gerhardt plays with genuine soul' (Classic FM Magazine)

'If Santa can only bring you one present this Christmas, make it the Hyperion recording of Honegger's Une Cantate de Noël' (Birmingham Post)

'This superbly recorded release significantly adds to the Honegger discography. Despite giving top billing to Une Cantate de Noël, all four works here are of the highest level of craftsmanship' (

Une Cantate de Noël, Cello Concerto & other orchestral works
Animé  [0'13]
Le combat  [2'52]
Prélude  [5'05]
Fugue  [5'16]
Postlude  [2'25]

Honegger’s Une Cantate de Noël is a Christmas number with a difference. His last work and one of his most popular compositions, it was written for the Basle Chamber Choir and Orchestra in 1953. The text of the cantata is derived from liturgical and popular texts—including Psalms and part of the Latin Gloria. A notable feature is the intertwining of traditional carols in French and German: appropriate for multilingual Switzerland and also perhaps symbolizing peace among nations seven years after the conclusion of World War II. Honegger scored the cantata for solo baritone, mixed chorus, children’s choir and an orchestra including organ. The combination of the different texts and forms creates a wonderfully uplifting effect.

This recording from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thierry Fischer also includes a selection of Honegger’s other great orchestral works, all displaying the serious symphonic intent which marked his greatest compositional achievements. Horace victorieux is described as a Symphonie mimée d’apres Tite-Live (‘mimed symphony after Livy’) and was originally conceived as a ballet. The scenario derives from the Roman legend of the combat of the Horatii and the Curiatii. Scored for a large orchestra, it is flamboyant, dissonant, even raucous, and highly coloured. Honegger’s mastery of fugue, so prevalent in Horace victorieux, is further illustrated in his Prélude, Fugue et Postlude.

Honegger’s Cello Concerto was premiered in Boston in 1930 and is a charming, urbanely lyrical work, with a distinct tinge of jazz—perhaps actuated by the thought of the American premiere. It was written for the celebrated cellist Maurice Maréchal, who wrote the cadenza himself. In the event, Maréchal provided a brilliantly effective display-piece taking advantage of many of the outrageous aspects of virtuoso cello technique (notably majestic triple- and quadruple-stopping). The brilliant young cellist Alban Gerhardt, celebrated for his performances of little-known cello concertos in Hyperion’s Romantic Cello Concerto series, is the soloist.

Other recommended albums
'Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen' (CDA67366)
Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen
'Pärt: Triodion & other choral works' (CDA67375)
Pärt: Triodion & other choral works
'Vasks & Weill: Violin Concertos' (CDA67496)
Vasks & Weill: Violin Concertos
'Vaughan Williams: Early Chamber Music' (CDA67381/2)
Vaughan Williams: Early Chamber Music
'Walton: Coronation Te Deum & other choral works' (CDA67330)
Walton: Coronation Te Deum & other choral works

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
'My preference, and my endeavour, has always been to write a music which would be understandable to the great majority of listeners and at the same time sufficiently free of banality to interest the connoisseurs.’ Arthur Honegger’s credo, in his 1951 monograph Je suis compositeur, seems modest enough. What he leaves out of account here are the sheer qualities of imagination and inspiration that so often transform his large output and are well illustrated by the works on the present disc.

Honegger was born in Le Havre, but he was Swiss by parentage and nationality and began his studies at the Zurich Conservatoire. He undertook further study in Paris, however, and spent much of the rest of his life living in Montmartre, becoming closely identified with developments in French music between the Wars. He was one of the circle of young composers who clustered round the venerably eccentric figure of Erik Satie, and before long he was identified—along with his friend Milhaud and Poulenc, Auric, Tailleferre and Durey—as a member of ‘Les Six’, the notorious group of iconoclastic bright young things of 1920s musical Paris.

Under the guidance of Satie and Cocteau, Les Six are best remembered for an output of flippantly satirical ‘entertainment music’ and the cultivation of a ‘Franco-American’ jazz style; but the weightier creative personalities among them soon began to go their separate ways, and Honegger (arguably the least flippant of them all) did so earliest, with works of such clearly serious import as the ‘mimed symphony’ Horace victorieux and the dramatic oratorio King David, both premiered in 1921. Honegger was much concerned with the union of music with the other arts, and made significant contributions to stage, radio and cinema (including the original score to Abel Gance’s film Napoléon). He had a son by the singer Claire Croiza, but in 1927 married the pianist Andrée Vaurabourg, and they toured widely in Europe and the USA. During World War II he remained in Paris; in 1947 he taught in the USA at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, where he suffered a heart attack that left him an invalid for the remainder of his life.

Much of Honegger’s œuvre has retreated into obscurity since his death in 1955. However, even his most ‘notorious’ works, for instance the symphonic movements Pacific 231 (1923) and Rugby (1928), manifested a serious symphonic intent behind their surface effects of orchestral onomatopoeia, and it was in fact in the forms of symphony, oratorio and chamber music that he achieved his most lasting successes. Horace victorieux (‘Horatius victorious’), described as a Symphonie mimée d’après Tite-Live (‘mimed symphony after Livy’), which he composed in the winter of 1920–21, was really the first work in which Honegger showed his mettle as a composer of serious, large-scale orchestral works. Though dedicated to Serge Koussevitsky, it was premiered in Geneva on 2 November 1921 under the baton of Ernest Ansermet. Koussevitsky however gave the French premiere in Paris on 1 December; after which Ansermet introduced it to London a fortnight later, setting in motion Honegger’s international reputation.

The designation ‘mimed symphony’ refers to the fact that Horace victorieux was originally conceived as a ballet, and its music is therefore suited to and calculated for dance, motion and gesture. Nevertheless it functions equally well as a single-movement symphony or symphonic poem. The scenario, as reflected in the music, derives from the Roman legend of the combat of the Horatii and the Curiatii, narrated by Livy in Book I, chapters 24–6 of his Historia. In 668BC Tullus Hostilius, third king of Rome, went to war with the people of neighbouring Alba Longa. It was decided that the outcome should rest on a formal combat between two sets of male triplets, the three Horatius brothers on the Roman side and the three Curiatius brothers from Alba Longa, who were of the same age. Early in the contest, two of the Horatii were killed; and the three Curiatii, though wounded, came after the last Horatius, Publius, but he managed to split up his pursuers and kill them one by one. When he returned to Rome, victorious, his sister—who had been betrothed to one of the Curiatii—saw he was bearing her lover’s cloak: stricken with grief, she wept. Publius Horatius forthwith ran her through with his sword, exclaiming ‘So perish any Roman woman who mourns the enemy!’ Livy relates that he was condemned to death for this savage act, but was pardoned when his aged father appealed to the people.

The subject had already inspired two great works of French art, the tragedy Horace by Pierre Corneille (1640) and Jacques-Louis David’s dramatic painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784). Honegger’s scenario shows some signs of being derived from Livy via Corneille, and gives Horatius’s sister (here referred to as Camilla) prominence at the beginning of the musical drama rather than, as in Livy, only at the end.

His sole previous orchestral work of any consequence had been the exquisitely placid Pastorale d’été, modest in its dimensions and orchestral forces. To that restrained achievement Horace victorieux stands in the starkest possible contrast. Scored for a large orchestra, it is flamboyant, dissonant, even raucous, and highly coloured. It would seem that the tone poems of Richard Strauss, and perhaps his ballet Josephslegende, were among Honegger’s models; as probably were the exotic scores of the most Straussian of his French contemporaries, Florent Schmitt.

Horace victorieux can be divided into sections which correspond to the scenario but which also resemble to some extent the exposition, development, interpolated scherzo and recapitulation of a one-movement symphonic scheme. After a few bars of furious, brazen introduction we hear an extended episode depicting the love of Camilla for Curiatius. This languid yet sinister music has a hypnotic intensity: the highly chromatic writing with large, dissonant intervals in the strings borders on a kind of Bergian expressionism. The three Horatii enter to the strains of a martial, determined fugato, counterpointed against the gentler flute theme of Camilla. After the fugato is taken up by the brass the crowd of spectators gathers to witness the impending contest.

The following section depicts the announcement and preparation for the combat, corresponding to a symphonic development section. The music of Camilla and Curiatius is recalled in expressive instrumental solos contrasted with an angular, fragmented version of the Horatius brothers’ fugal theme and brassy fanfares. The combat itself, violent and dissonant, its abrupt rhythms reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, continues the development process in more scherzo-like style. In this brilliant and striking section Honegger’s future mastery of symphonic motion is revealed. The texture is once again essentially fugal, and highly polyphonic, with many competing lines. An agonized climax signals the triumph of Horatius, only to give way to the pathos of Camilla’s music as she mourns her Curiatius. Her death at the hands of her brother refers back to the opening bars of the entire work, now impaled on a repeated, unyielding dissonance.

Honegger’s mastery of fugue is illustrated in his Prélude, Fugue et Postlude. This was first performed in 1948 by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Ernest Ansermet, but the music dates from much earlier, for Honegger extracted and arranged these three pieces from a major dramatic work for reciter, solo singers, chorus and orchestra, Amphion, which he had composed in 1929 to a text by Paul Valéry. Written for Ida Rubinstein, Amphion had been produced at the Paris Opéra in June 1931 but then forgotten after a few concert performances. The Prélude, Fugue et Postlude can be regarded as an independent (and abstract) triptych, but Honegger nonetheless prefaced the score with Valéry’s summary of his drama: ‘Amphion, a mortal man, receives the lyre from Apollo. Music is born from the touch of his fingers. At the emerging sounds, the rocks move, join together: architecture is created. Just as the Hero is about to enter the temple, the figure of a veiled woman approaches him and bars his way. She is Love, or Death: Amphion buries his face in her breast and allows her to lead him away.’

It seems, therefore, that should we wish it we could seek a programmatic element, or at least an emotional correlative, in this triptych. The solemn, discreetly bitonal harmonies of the Prélude and the burgeoning strands of melody that follow could certainly be described as Apollonian, but a mood of striving provokes a climactic passage which leads up to the start of the Fugue. Based on a gawky, angular theme that starts effortfully in the bass, this movement might indeed evoke the movement of rocks, building through suaver countersubjects and episodes to a majestic architectural contrapuntal structure. It passes into a climax with a fateful tolling rhythm that eventually subsides to leave a more meditative mood of acceptance. The final span is lyrically elegiac, and the work ebbs away into the shadows in a spirit of Attic sobriety.

Honegger’s Cello Concerto was composed immediately after Amphion in 1929, for the celebrated cellist Maurice Maréchal, who gave the premiere in Boston, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, in February 1930; he later recorded it with the Paris Conservatoire Concert Society under the composer’s baton. In contrast to Horace victorieux or even the Prélude, Fugue et Postlude the Cello Concerto is an amiable, urbanely lyrical (not to say urban) work, with a distinct admixture of jazz—perhaps actuated by the thought of the American premiere. It is not without its darker and more enigmatic moments; the Andante opening of the first movement, however, seems innocent, song-like: the bluesy harmonies recall Gershwin (whom Honegger knew and admired) though the cello’s nostalgic melodic line seems to speak with a French accent.

A sudden switch to rather harsh and busy contrapuntal activity makes an effective contrast, and the two elements coexist as the movement proceeds, rather as if a soulful soliloquy is continually being broken in upon by the traffic noise of the city streets outside. It is the cello’s lyrical song that has the last word, however. That lyricism turns melancholy and even bitter in the Lento slow movement, where the cello’s voice sounds sombre and protesting against hints of funeral march in the strings and lonely city sounds in brass and woodwind. An impassioned and virtuosic cello recitative provokes an angry orchestral outburst before a delicate dance-like ostinato idea appears in the woodwind and becomes the accompaniment to the cello’s reverie.

The cadenza—Honegger did not provide his own, leaving that task to Maréchal—prefaces the finale. In the event, Maréchal provided a brilliantly effective display-piece taking advantage of some of the aspects of cello technique (notably majestic triple- and quadruple-stopping) of which Honegger had not much availed himself elsewhere in the concerto. It accelerates into the stamping, rumbustious opening theme of the finale. This is a spikily energetic rondo of effervescent humour and syncopated rhythm. Here Honegger the former member of ‘Les Six’ is much in evidence. The principal episode pits the suave cantilena of the cello against obstreperous jazzy exclamations and solos from the wind instruments (the effect strongly anticipates a passage in the finale of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, which was written soon after Honegger’s work). The cheerful melange of sound and dance-rhythm in the later stages of the finale includes a hilarious tuba solo as counterpoint to the cello. Just when the fun is at its fastest and most furious, the lazy blues of the work’s opening is recalled for a last moment of languid lyricism before the raffish rout of the Concerto’s final bars.

Honegger’s last composition, and one of his best-loved works, was his Christmas cantata, Une Cantate de Noël, which he composed in 1952–3 for the Basle Chamber Choir and its founder and conductor Paul Sacher, that great benefactor of twentieth-century music, from whom Honegger had received many commissions over the years. It was completed in January 1953, and though Honegger was to live for another two years and ten months further creative work was beyond him. The premiere was given in Basle, conducted by Sacher, on 18 December 1953.

In writing the cantata Honegger in fact based it on music which he had sketched in early 1941. This had been intended for performance in a Passion Play that was to be staged at the Swiss village of Selzach, but the project had been abandoned. (Another spin-off from it was a group of three Psalm-settings for voice and piano, published in 1943.) The text of the cantata is derived from liturgical and popular texts—including Psalms and part of the Latin Gloria. A notable feature is the intertwining of traditional carols in French and German: appropriate for multilingual Switzerland and also perhaps symbolizing peace among nations seven years after the conclusion of World War II. Honegger scored the cantata for solo baritone, mixed chorus, children’s choir and an orchestra including organ.

It is the organ which dominates the slow introduction with which the work begins. The first choral entries are wordless, in the manner of a lament, growing into a passage based on the words of Psalm 130, the ‘De profundis’. The music grows into a baleful march that reaches a dissonant climax. This provokes a choral cry of ‘O come’ which soon expands into a setting of the hymn ‘O come, O come Emmanuel!’ (Honegger does not use the familiar plainchant melody, however). The children’s choir gives reassurance, and then the baritone, with organ and trumpets, announces the birth of Christ in the words of the angel’s Biblical proclamation. The response is a regular quodlibet of German and French carol tunes, in which the Latin Gloria is also heard.

The tempo slows to Adagio, and as the baritone sings the Gloria, a solo treble takes up the words of Psalm 117, the ‘Laudate Dominum’, using its traditional melody. The whole Psalm is then sung by the mixed chorus in triple time, while the children’s voices and trumpets add the plainchant as a descant. In the slow coda we hear a further medley of carols, which are eventually reduced to scattered phrases fading into the serenity of the Christmas night.

Calum MacDonald © 2008

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