HONEGGER: Symphony No. 1 in C Major; Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique” – Sinfonieorchester Basel/ Dennis Russell Davies – SOB 02, 55:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) seems to have disregarded Oscar Wilde’s dictum in Dorian Gray that “all art is quite useless,” and rather insisted that music convey a moral message. The so-called “Liturgical” Symphony No. 3 (1945-1946) reflects a devout Protestant’s reaction to WW II, the composer having inscribed words from the Catholic requiem mass before each of the three movements. The acerbic biting Dies irae: Allegro marcato presents us with Judgment Day, an exercise in controlled chaos. Dennis Russell Davies (b. 1944), a master of the modern musical idiom, brings out the clarity of the jerking rhythms amidst which a kind of trombone chorale tries to emerge, an “orison” of sorrow and pity that might have been sung by Wilfred Owen. The recording (2-3 March 2011) as engineered by Ruedi Wild offers a model of orchestral clarity and detail. The syncopated pipings from the winds against the brass, girded by rough ostinati in the Basel strings, produce an horrific effect, the stretti’s closing in as a hymn to claustrophobia. Honegger characterized these energies as “constrictive and blind.“ If you want a modern war equivalent, try watching the grueling film Tunnel Rats 1968.
The second movement, marked De profundis clamavi (now a direct appeal to another side of Oscar Wilde), presents a large Adagio which Honegger calls a “prayer beyond hope.” Muted instruments enter and blur a suppliant’s desire for meaning in the rubble. Honegger comments that “My symphony is a drama in which three protagonists – either real or symbolic – participate: Misfortune, Happiness and Man. It is an eternal problem. I tried to reinterpret it.” The texture lightens, and strings, piano, and soft winds offer some degree of light, almost a jazz color. Honegger expresses “happiness, love of peace and divine refuge.” Although entitled Dona nobis pacem: Andante, the last movement opens with more gore and hostility, musical Erich Remarque, Norman Mailer, and Tim O’Brien. Musical hints of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony strike us, and any sense of peace seems ironic, the old epigram of Tacitus: “They make a desert and call it peace.” The violas and accompanying strings and low winds rise up in protest against the carnage, and perhaps a simple bird lands on a shattered tree. Violin and harp join the Swiss pacifist’s pantheistic supplication for contentment in this world.
Rarely heard in the concert hall, Honegger’s First Symphony (1929-1930) derives from a commission from the Boston Symphony and Serge Koussevitzky for composers to help celebrate the orchestra’s fiftieth birthday. In a style derivative of Prokofiev and the industrial style of Pacific 231, the rhythms of the opening Allegro marcato employ much brass sonority, almost music by Hindemith. The jarring sensibility does not relent, so the effect is quite geometric, and only the textures offer any softening of the percussion. The bass drum makes two resounding points.
If a neo-Classical allusion to the music of Stravinsky seems apparent, the sonic similarity likely is intentional. A dark angular lyricism marks the Adagio, the echoes in the strings creating an effective halo of sound. Despite a solid key center, the music avoids any direct glare and dissonance that atonality can bestow, although the music conveys a degree of anguish. Rising lines from woodwinds and muted brass lighten the heavy agitated load. The work has no scherzo movement. The last movement, Presto – Andante tranquillo opens with a bassoon and twisted metrics that might have been lifted from Dukas. Again, the music of Hindemith or Petrushka seems nigh, the patina hard and brassy, jostling and martial in the rhythms. The tone of the procession generally lightens after some four minutes, the quick brass riffs and punctuations less harsh and punishing despite the relentless drive of the energies. A kind of four-note “fate” motif enters the mix, eventually assuaged by the woodwinds—the flute in particular—that invokes soothing strings. A hazy mist concludes this striking chromatic piece, brilliantly executed by a virtuoso Basel ensemble.
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…