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Positive Feedback ISSUE 71
january/february 2014


Orchestral Music of Arthur Honegger
by Stephen Francis Vasta


Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich/David Zinman. Decca 455 352-2. TT: 70.09. Downloads:;; (finale of Symphony only). Rugby. Symphony No. 2. Mouvement symphonique No. 3. Monopartita. Pastorale d'été. Pacific 231.

Arthur Honegger's sort of advanced tonality (sometimes bitonality) falls easily on the ears of even unadventurous listeners, and this 1999 issue—by today's standards, practically a historical artifact—looks like an essential acquisition. The Second Symphony, arguably the most popular of the composer's five, anchors a well-filled program that includes the uncharismatically named Mouvement symphonique No. 3 and the previously (and since) unrecorded Monopartita along with the better-known tone poems. With the Tonhalle, Switzerland's most prestigious orchestra, playing the music of the country's best-known composer, this should have been a slam dunk.

Certainly David Zinman has a good feeling for Honegger's orchestral textures, playing vivid wind colors against the string body. (In the Second Symphony, for strings, he uses the optional obbligato trumpet in the coda, and gets the balance just right: it's just prominent enough to reinforce the chorale melody, as Honegger prescribed, without actually taking focus.) He also has the measure of the composer's expressive aesthetic, bringing out the detached lyricism—or lyrical detachment—of the melodic passages, propelling the energetic music forward in readily intelligible rhythmic groupings.

Yet the performances don't always hit their marks. The Tonhalle players, for all the tonal beauty of their playing, seem ill at ease with their countryman's music. Since these sessions occurred fairly early in Zinman's association with the orchestra, it's possible that the conductor and players weren't yet used to each other—or, perhaps, that the players were simply unfamiliar with the music. They acquit themselves professionally, but with a mild rhythmic imprecision—even some of the dactylic figures giving the "pastoral" quality to the Pastorale d'été are soft-edged in attack and execution—that works equally against the lyrical and propulsive qualities outlined earlier.

The big misfire, unfortunately, is the Second Symphony. The first movement is good, but the central slow movement goes completely adrift, and takes its time about it to boot. And the finale is mere note-spinning until that trumpet entrance, which comes too late to save it. I'm not fond of the dark, opaque sound of the strings of the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra (EMI), but Michel Plasson draws a far more cohesive performance from them.

The tone-poems are variably successful. The turbulent opening of the Mouvement symphonique No. 2 also seems aimless; things pick up with the brooding saxophone solo at 6.07. Rugby comes off well; so does the Pastorale d'été, despite the occasionally tentative rhythmic footing. Monopartita is agreeable enough.

The best performance goes to the score that is, discographically, least essential: Pacific 231. The piece hasn't gotten much attention in the digital era—the vogue for this sort of program music is long past. Still, Zinman's clear, bright, somewhat abstract reading is as compelling as Bernstein's showier, more pictorial account (Sony), while the playing is more polished than on Ansermet's early-stereo version (Decca).

The engineering, in its presence and color, recalls Decca's analog "house sound," which is a compliment.

The situation with downloads isn't great: they seem not to be available from the major commercial sources—although Amazon and ArkivMusic both offer the actual CD—or from Decca Classics itself -- and it's unclear how much of the album RapidLibrary has actually posted.

Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.