Honegger’s Christmas Cantata

0 of 5 stars

Horace victorieux
Cello Concerto
Prélude, Fugue et Postlude
Une Cantate de Noël

Alban Gerhardt (cello)

James Rutherford (baritone)

Children from the choirs of Tewkesbury Abbey, Schola Cantorum & Dean Close School Chamber Choir

BBC National Chorus of Wales

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thierry Fischer

Cantata recorded 14 December 2007 in St David’s Hall, Cardiff; remainder recorded 20-23 February 2008 in Brangwyn Hall, Swansea

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: December 2008
Duration: 76 minutes



This is 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.

Horace victorieux (1920/21) is a single-movement, nine-section “mimed symphony after Livy”. It was premiered by Ernest Ansermet in Geneva in November 1921 and Serge Koussevitzky (the work’s dedicatee) gave the first French performance in Paris at the beginning of December, Ansermet then giving the London premiere shortly after. The piece was initially conceived as a ballet on the battle of Horace and the Curiatii as narrated by Livy. Honegger’s models seem to have been the tone poems of Richard Strauss and the scores of Florent Schmitt. Although there is the skeleton of sonata form here, the actual effect is rather diffuse, reflecting the element of ongoing narration.

Thierry Fischer’s performance is vigorous when required (‘Annonce des préparatifs du combat’, the fifth movement) and balanced by some remarkably tender moments. The recorded balance, too, is noteworthy. Nothing sounds false, and yet one can hear clearly such moments that surely must be difficult live – high bassoon lines, for example. Fischer gives the climactic ‘Triomphe d’Horace’ a great sense of sweep. Collectors may already own Michel Plasson’s account for Deutsche Grammophon; nevertheless, Fischer’s version still demands attention for the strength of the couplings.

The Cello Concerto (1929) was written for Maurice Maréchal, who premiered the piece (in Boston) and who also provided the cadenza that prefaces the finale (it is separately tracked and credited). The work opens in an aura of calm reflection. The cello’s opening pensive lines, expressively and gently delivered by the excellent Alban Gerhardt, speak of deep matters. Jazz harmonies and, in the finale, plain old high spirits, also inform the score. Gerhardt’s rendering of the cadenza is gripping, his virtuosity reaching the heights in the finale – in service of a fun, highly spiced ride.

Prélude, Fugue et Postlude (another Ansermet premiere) is a 1948 revision of music from the ballet-melodrama Amphion (1929). In the heavily accented ‘Fugue’, which seems to speak mock-seriously, Honegger once again demonstrates his compositional virtuosity, elevating the central section to a glowing Messiaen-like highpoint – but not before we hear a glorious, succulent ‘Prélude’ that rises to a bi-tonal, rugged climax. As if to spite this impression, the ‘Postlude’ gently allows the piece to exit our consciousness, ad out of the silence comes the low-string opening of “Une Cantate de Noël” (1952/3), which was premiered by Paul Sacher in Basle).

The work is scored for solo baritone, mixed chorus, children’s choir and orchestra (with organ). There is an identifiably Stravinskian tread to the opening Latin psalm (No.130, “De profundi clamavis ad te Domine”). Long melismas seem tortuous, harmonies anguished (mirroring the text “Out of the depths I have cried unto thee, O Lord”). Christmas in any traditional, tinselly way only kicks in at the opening of the second section, which brings in the children’s choir, “Joie et Paix sur Toi Israël!”. Honegger includes a selection of German carols, as well as French ones. “Silent Night” is heard in the German. The opening of the ‘Gloria’ is entrusted to the solo baritone, with solo treble answer. James Rutherford has a strong voice if with a little too much vibrato; the delightful solo treble answer appears to be non-credited, alas.

A lovely release, in resplendent sound – and a very astute way of bolstering the Honegger catalogue.

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