Tuesday 7 September 2021

Arthur Honegger: Mélodies et Chansons from Holger Falk & Steffen Schleiermacher

Arthur Honegger Mélodies et Chansons; Holger Falk, Steffen Schleiermacher; MDGArthur Honegger Mélodies et Chansons; Holger Falk, Steffen Schleiermacher; MDG
Arthur Honegger Mélodies et Chansons; Holger Falk, Steffen Schleiermacher; MDG

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Spanning over 30 years, this wide-ranging recital explores Arthur Honegger's full development as a song-composer

Like the music of the other composers from Les Six, the music of Arthur Honegger moves away from the style associated with the group in the 1920s and Honegger was a prolific composer, leaving works in a wide range of genres. Whilst a few are well-known, far more of his works remain at best curios on the edge of the repertoire. On this disc from Dabringhaus und Grimm, baritone Holger Falk and pianist Steffen Schleiermacher have assembled a selection of Honegger's songs ranging from Quatre Poemes from 1914/1916 to Quatre Chansons pour Voix Grave from 1945. Many are tiny, the longest is 3'35 and the shortest is just 40 seconds, 46 songs lasting a total of 73'30, with the result that a number of the song cycles resemble mosaics of tiny pieces rather than assemblages of larger-scale independent songs.

The poets are largely contemporary and names such as Jean Cocteau, Apollinaire and Paul Claudel providing links with Honegger's contemporaries Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. But it is best to forget these two, and concentrate on Honegger himself and his approach to writing for voice and piano. 

Born in France of Swiss parents, he studied both at the Zurich Conservatoire and the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Charles-Marie Widor and Vincent d'Indy and whilst Honegger followed the fashionable trends he was never the most progressive of 20th century composers. Some of the songs on this disc have the wit, energy and brevity of Poulenc's early work, but often we are struck by the composer's seriousness of purpose, even in the lighter or faster pieces, and the way that from the 1920s the piano ceases to dazzle and becomes a supportive partner with the voice at the fore. 

Text was clearly important for Honegger, the poems are usually presented in a clear and direct way, and in many of the later songs he creates a sort of free-recitative, sometimes lyric and sometimes dramatic, where the voice and text get primacy, the words shaping the vocal line. Simplicity and plainness are words which I kept coming back to when listening to this music, but imagination and complexity too. Often, Honegger has the gift of presenting a song with directness which conceal complexity underneath, the music is never boring. There is a neo-classical, pared-down quality to the music yet with spice in the harmonies.

His style changes, but even late on he manages to access the lively style of his early music, so that the first and third songs in Saluste du Bartas (from 1941) have distinctly perky characters, whilst the fifth is in the chattery style used by Poulenc. Yet, you would never really mistake this music as that from Les Six, the older composer is perhaps looking back. 

The earliest works on the disc, the Quatre Poemes from 1914/16  and Six Poemes de Apollinaire, both cycles written when he was still at the Paris Conservatoire, are examples of his mosaic technique, assemblages of tiny, highly characterful objects, often with striking piano parts. The Jean Cocteau settings, which date from 1926, bring us closest to the Honegger who was part of Les Six, with perky, chattery songs à la Poulenc alongside lyric ones with complex piano parts and more serious ones. Yet by 1941 he was writing the Trois Psaumes with real plainness and expressive simplicity.

Holger Falk sings with great beauty of tone and fine control of the line, lots of lovely fluid lyricism, yet with brilliant words where necessary. He has a nice easy top to his voice and his tone quality suits the songs, as does his intelligent approach. Pianist Steffen Schleiermacher, playing on a period Steinway dating from 1901, is an intelligent partner providing fine, flexible support and dazzling where the composer allows him to. A highly recommended exploration of a still underrated area of the composer's output.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) - Saluste du Bartas (1941) Arthur Honegger - Trois Chansons de Rene Morax (1926)
Arthur Honegger - Trois Poemes de Paul Claudel (1940)
Arthur Honegger - Trois Poemes de Paul Fort (1916)
Arthur Honegger - Trois Psaumes (1941)
Arthur Honegger - Quatre Chansons pour Voix Grave (1945)
Arthur Honegger - Quatre Poemes (1914/16)
Arthur Honegger - Six Poemes de Apollinaire (1916)
Arthur Honegger - Six Poesies de Jean Cocteau (1923)
Arthur Honegger - Chanson de Pierre de Ronsard (1924)
Arthur Honegger - Nature Morte (1917)
Arthur Honegger - Petit Cours de Morale (1941)
Arthur Honegger - Vocalise (1929)
Holger Falk (baritone)
Steffen Schleiermacher (piano)
Recorded 25-27 August 2020, Konzerthaus Abtai Marienmunsters
MDG 613 2203-2 1CD [73.30]

Elsewhere on this blog

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  • A sequence of vivid characters: William Walton's A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table alongside Puccini, Verdi and Finzi in a superb recital from Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper concert review
  • Composing is not something that you decide to do, it chooses you: I chat to composer Richard Danielpour about his new work which arose directly out of the events of 2020 - interview
  • Quite an occasion: Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts early Handel and Bach for his 60th appearance at the BBC Proms - concert review
  • Surprisingly satisfying: Bach's The Art of Fugue from Les inAttendus (accordion, bass viol, Baroque violin) - record review
  • Unsettling and distinctive: Gregory Brown's new work for vocal sextet and electronics, Fall and Decline - record review
  • Against the odds: a fine musical performance triumphs over unseasonal weather and an unsympathetic sound system in ENO's venture south of the river - opera review
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  • Creating the musical language that belongs to the film: I chat to composer Benjamin Woodgates about writing for film, notably his first feature film score for Dream Horse interview
  • A complex mix of dance, text and music: William K.z.'s The Growth of Silk at Camden Fringe - opera review
  • Strong impact: Handel's Alcina from Ensemble OrQuesta at Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival - opera review
  • Home

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