Honegger Pastorale D Ete / Symphony 4

If people know the music of Arthur Honegger, it tends to be though the lens of his Second and Third Symphonies and the symphonic poem in the form of a rail journey, Pacific 231. These piecescreate a rather one-sided perception  of his creative output, and it is pleasing to see this new release of live recordings from 2007 of three of Honegger’s more gentle works, including his exquisite Fourth Symphony, subtitled ‘the Delights of Basle’. After the strident, modernist First, anguishedSecond (for strings and trumpet only), and mainly pessimistic Third, the Fourth comes as a complete surprise: it has an uncluttered, breezy elegance that is almost rustic. While the Third Symphony expressed the clouds that hung over Europe during the Second World War, the Fourth, according to Honegger ‘brings hope’. Cast in three movements, the work follows a standard fast-slow-fast model, sandwiching a pensive and edgy Larghetto, that recalls the brief codas in the Third Symphony, between two jaunty and memorableAllegros, the second of which is rhythmically extraordinarily witty. A lovelier piece would be hard to imagine—except possibly Honegger’s own Pastorale d’Été, a hazy, mid-summer idyll that opens this CD.

The disc is rounded out by a later (2009) recording of Honegger’s last completed work, the Cantate de Nöel of 1952-3, that recapitulates the journey from despair to hope of the Third and Fourth Symphonies. The music, astonishingly distant from his early avantegardism, possesses the same expressive directness as the Pastorale d’Été and the Fourth Symphony, but some of the obsessive ostinati and dissonance of the Third Symphony return in the opening choral de profundis (‘out of the depths’) setting, contrasting startlingly with the naïve, almost maudlin, setting of  ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’—in French—for the children’s chorus. Baritone Christopher Maltman has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard, and his brief entrances enrich the music marvellously. I can’t pretend to be inordinately fond of this work, but I doubt that it has ever received a better performance; it is certainly one of the more enduring works written to celebrate Christmas.

Jurowski has a very clear understanding of the Honeggerian universe, and his readings of these delectable works are beautifully shaped, catching exactly the right blend of formal clarity and melodic charm. He draws a lovely sound from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the various instrumental soloists clearly understand the character of their music. This is a delightful CD.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.