HONEGGER:  Pacific 231.  Rugby.  Mouvement symphonique No. 3. Prelude to The Tempest. Pastorale d'ÈtÈ.  Chant de joie.  STRAVINSKY:  Petrushka.
Royal Philharmonic Orch/Hermann Scherchen, cond.

DG WESTMINSTER 471 245 (M) (ADD) TT:  76:41

Berlin-born Herman Scherchen (1891-1966) was an autodidact who was already playing viola in Artur Nikisch's Philharmonic at the age of 16. He traded bow for baton at Riga in 1914, only to be interned in Russia during WW1. Later on he became a textbook authority on conducting (wrote one, that is, as well as other books); he had an inquiring mind and was a career-long sponsor of new music. Even before Riga he assisted Schoenberg in preparing the 1913 premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, and in 1936 conducted the world premieres (in Barcelona) of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and Three Excerpts from Wozzeck. Anton Webern was supposed to, but when rehearsals went beyond 40, Scherchen was brought in to get the job done.

He conducted in Germany until 1932, when the political climate persuaded him to make Switzerland his home. He founded a school in Winterthur, and conducted there when not touring throughout Europe. After WW2 he became a regular on Westminster's conducting roster in Vienna and Paris as well as London. He was the first to record Berlioz's Les Troyennes in the early days of LP (years before Colin Davis did the complete opera on Philips for the first time), and added Messe des Morts in 1958 (a.k.a. Requiem, a performance in stereo reissued on CD which R.E.B. reviewed).  But Scherchen could be a sloppy conductor, perhaps because of time restrictions on rehearsals and studio availability; in any case, wild and wooly is not hyperbole if you've listened to many of his recordings, which I regularly did as part of my job for 20-plus years.

All the more surprising, then, that this Petrushka sounds undercharacterized in the middle movements, with mediocre solo wind and brass playing by Beecham's pristine RPO (founded in 1946 following Sir Thomas' self-exile in the U.S. during WW2). Scherchen keeps the Shrovetide Fair portions lively, but the end is dismayingly flat. His Petrushka doesn't conclude; it quits. Supposedly this is the 1911 edition calling for an army of players but, except for a major overhaul of the piano part in the 1947 revision, sounds somehow compromised. It's not just mono recording dating from September 1954 by the same producer (Kurt List) and engineer (Karl Wolleitner) who also recorded the six Honegger pieces that share this well-filled CD (76:32 according to my computer; I couldn't find a TT on the disc, or in the notes).

The Honegger includes Mouvement symphonique No. 3 and Chant de joie, missing from Michel Plasson's 1991 Toulouse CD on DGG (but that includes Horace victorieux and two suites from Louis Cuny's 1943 film Mermoz). If the Toulouse sound is rather murky— not quite sharply defined—playing is idiomatic in a French second-tier fashion. The RPO, however, sounds to be sight-reading in everything but the relaxed Pastorale d'ÈtÈ, without conviction or even much interest. Worst of all, too much is sloppy by British standards of 1954.

Westminster's most collectable recordings were operatic, with Teresa Stich-Randall, Beverly Sills and Maureen Forrester sharing honors (even when conducting was routine). Almost everyone else made more distinguished records with other companies before and after. "Original-Image-Bit Processing" features "added presence and brilliance, greater spatial definition," but it's still mono, and not in a class with RCA or London/Decca mono of that period. Caveant omnia.

R.D. (Jan. 2002)