HONEGGER: Symphony No. 2; HENRI LAZAROF: Concerto for Orchestra No. 2, “Icarus”; Poema for Orchestra – Seattle Sym./ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos 8.572748, 61:32 ****:
Maybe I shouldn’t be troubled by such imponderables, but why is Honegger considered a Swiss composer? Yes, his parents were Swiss, and he studied briefly at the Zurich Conservatory (and also at the Paris Conservatoire, with Widor and D’Indy), but he was born in Le Havre and died in Paris, living and working mostly in France. Also, he’s known as the most serious-minded of Les six Français (later called just Les Six). Oh, well.
Like much of Honegger’s best-known music, his Second Symphony was written in France, in this case during the “sad days” of the German occupation, from 1941 to ‘42. There is a Swiss connection to the symphony; however. It was commissioned by Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, who was responsible for commissioning important works by Bartók, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Lutosławski, Martinů, and other modern masters; Honegger would write his Fourth Symphony, “Deliciae Basilienses,” for Sacher’s Basel Chamber Orchestra as well. The Second is Honegger’s most famous symphonies and should be mentioned among great symphonies of the twentieth-century.
It’s scored for strings and obbligato trumpet, which appears only at the end of the last movement (though I’ve only ever heard one recording that doesn’t include the trumpet part, Michel Plasson’s on EMI, and it’s like a BLT without the B). Casting the symphony for strings alone makes for an especially somber sound picture, even when the strings are playing fast. The quicker passages of the grim first movement don’t change the dire mood a jot; there’s a brutal insistence to the music that matches world affairs at the time. The second movement is especially moving since Honegger doesn’t indulge in breast-beating or gnashing of teeth. It’s a movement of quiet desperation but “not. . .positively hopeless.” Even the Vivace finale visits both despair and hope; hope seems to triumph in the memorable final pages, where the trumpet enters playing a chorale melody above the jogging string body, an effect the composer described as “like pulling out an organ stop.” Along the way, however, Honegger’s knotty polyphony, punctuated by stabbing off-rhythms, hardly provides an air of solace, let alone triumph. Instead, Honegger, who worked with the French Resistance during the war, seems to glimpse ultimate triumph as a distant prize that will someday be won. Compared to other wartime symphonies that anticipated Allied victory (Prokofiev’s Fifth, Shostakovich’s Seventh), Honegger’s is thus a unique statement.
Schwarz and the Seattle turn in a very fine performance of this powerful symphony. Some recordings of the work are sabotaged by anemic strings, but the Seattle players provide a big sinewy sound that gives teeth to the argument of Honegger’s tough music. Plus Schwarz keeps things moving at a fair clip, investing the faster bits with a heady propulsiveness that’s convincing. This has to be considered one of the more successful outings the symphony has had on disc.
With Bulgarian composer Henri Lazaof, we have another conundrum of citizenship. Lazarof (b. 1932) studied in Israel (with Paul Ben-Haim), in Rome, and in America, with Harold Shapero at Brandeis. He’s been living in Southern California since 1959, and besides composition at UCLA, served as teacher of French language and literature. Quite a cosmopolite! In fact, though his resume doesn’t include studies with noted French composers, Lazarof reminds me at times of both Messiaen and Dutilleux. In fact, the “Messiaenic” touches seem fairly obvious to me; I hope I’m not just hearing things. At any rate, Lazarof’s music falls into the category of highly dissonant verging on and crossing over to atonal. True to its name, the Concerto for Orchestra is a real workout for all sections, including prominent thundering percussion. Commissioned by the Houston Symphony and debuted in 1984, it cleverly draws on the Icarus myth as a tribute to Houston as home of NASA Mission Control. The music may be inspired by “the ambition, achievements and occasional tragic setbacks of NASA’s efforts,” but it’s not programmatic at all, and frankly if you didn’t know about the “Icarus” subtitle and the NASA subtext, you probably wouldn’t think of ambition, achievement, or tragedy in connection with the Concerto.
The same observation (or complaint, depending on how fractious you want to be) could be brought to bear on Lazarof’s Poeme, another symphonic poem without a specific program, this one meant as a wedding tribute to Gerard Schwarz and his wife, Jody. The gesture was a flattering one, no doubt, but this kind of musical abstract expressionism doesn’t seem appropriate to the happy occasion—or any sort of occasion particularly. Poeme seems just a pendant to the more interesting Concerto for Orchestra, and I can imagine a better filler for the disc, maybe Honegger’s Concerto da camera, which would have highlighted Seattle players in the same way as Lazarof’s Concerto.
But other than that, I have no complaints. The Honegger Symphony and Lazarof Concerto make an interesting pair that show how different the responses of composers can be to similar events and situations. Given the committed performances here and the colorful sound production served up by Delos’ engineers working at the Seattle Center Opera House, this merits a firm recommendation.
The historic restorations show a renewed vitality.