HONEGGER King David
König David? The world hasn’t exactly been waiting for a German language recording of this once-popular musico-dramatic telling of the King David story that launched Arthur Honegger’s career. Now that such a recording is here, it makes a case for itself in the original wind-band orchestration, early performances of which were presented in German translation of the René Morax text.
Honegger’s 20th-century hybrid of Middle Eastern-influenced music, which doesn’t so much dramatise the story as underscore points already made by the text, can sound, to modern ears, like Miklós Rózsa’s much later film score to Ben-Hur, though the original wind band takes König David in a positive step away from those Hollywood associations. The piece has extra Stravinskian bite and primitivism, while also revealing the young Honegger flexing his compositional muscles in nearly every dramatically appropriate direction, even creating an effective Sprechstimme melodrama scene for witch and orchestra.
The dramatic momentum from conductor Frank Markowitsch, especially among the choral forces, counts for much in a score that feels almost terse to a fault. Vocal soloists Narine Yeghiyan, Rowan Hellier and Jan Remmers aren’t the most distinctive personalities but certainly do the job, often managing Honegger’s less than lyrical vocal lines with an ease eclipsing their recorded predecessors.
The deal-breaker here is the narrator – the dominant presence in a piece that’s best heard in the language of its audience. And with these Berlin-based forces, the recording’s drawing cards are screen star Devid Striesow in this central role and actress Irm Hermann as an appropriately delirious witch. It’s here that König David may lose more non German listeners than usual.
After a fairly nuanced beginning, Striesow hits a high-rhetoric pitch that borders on the hysterical as the piece goes on – while also falling back on the same inflections so frequently that you really want him to stop long before he does. The composer’s own recording had a more low-key narrator in Jean Hervé (Ducretet – nla) – a precedent followed by Charles Dutoit in his 1973 Erato recording (Apex, 1/72) with Jean Dessailly that uses the wind-band arrangement and has the vocal glamour of Christiane Eda-Pierre.
For English-speaking listeners, there’s a curiously recommendable 1958 BBC broadcast artifact available on download from various places, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and with a fine female narrator, Margaretta Scott, who sensibly doubles as the witch.