THE DEBATE over whether Arthur Honegger was or was not a "great" composer seems to have petered out. Not, one suspects, because the term "great" like the term "artist," has been abused into meaninglessness, but simply because so little of Honegger's music is heard in this country that there was no point in continuing the discussion.
Of Honegger's five symphonies, at least two or tree deserve representation in our concert programs, and one would think that at least the ingenious and endearing Christmas Cantata (Cantate de Noel) would get a seasonal workout, but we don't hear them, and many of these titles have disappeared from our record catalogue.
Two of Honegger's works that do get a hearing here now and then - perhaps in college and consevatory concerts more than in professional subscription series - are the dramatic oratorios King David and Joan of Arc at the Stake. King David is the superior work, but more of a fuss is made over Joan of Arc, and the patriotic/idealistics connotations of the latter work make that easy to understnad: they do not, however, make it a really effective piece, and it is not too surprising that it is not listed in Schwann.
Ironically, it is the attention focused on Joan of Arc that has accounted, at least in part, for the neglect of Honegger's symphonies. Because Joan is so ambitious a work, and so far from completely realizing its lofty objectives (Claudel's often stuffy text is not always a help), it has tended to down-grade Honegger's overall image in the minds of many who are not really familiar with his other works.
In the more than 40 years since Jeanne d'Arc au bucher was first performed, there have apparently been no more than three recordings. The two issued in this country, both by Columbia, both featured Vera Zorina in the title role. She gave the U.S. premiere, then recorded the work in French with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchesta, later, about ten-years ago, she remade it in English with Seiji Ozawa and the London Symphony Orchestra. Neither version stayed in the active for long.
There is a new recorking now, unlisted in Schwann because that catalogu for some reason does not include the Czechoslovak Supraphon discs in regular distribution in this country. The two disc set is numbered 1 12 1651-2, and is available at several shops in the Washington area. The recording was made in Parague in 1975, with an all-French speaking cast, a mixed French and Czech singing cast, the Czech Philharmonic Chorus Kuehn Children's Choir and the Czech Philaharmonic Orchestra under Serge Baudo.
Baudo some time ago recorded all the Honegger symphonies and several of the composer's other works with the Czech Philharmonic; some of the recordings circulated here on Columbia's now defunct Crossroads label; all of them are available at present as imports. His authority in this material is beyond dispute, and he does a magnificent job with Jeanne d'Arc, which he has performed dozens of times, and which he obviously believes in, deeply.
What really makes this presentation of the work convincing where its discographic predecessors have not been, though, is the way the dramatic element is handled. In the two Columbia recordings we heard the spoken roles brilliantly declaimed; on Supraphon the actors simply live the parts. It is as simple as that and makes itself felt with special poignancy in the title role.
Nelly Borgeaud, who brings Joan to life her, does not declaim. Her Joan is not the mature warrior-saint, aware of her exalted destiny, but a 19-year-old girl scared to death of being burned alive and yet steadfast in her faith and her sense of divine mission. Every episode is poignant, vivid, credible; and the drama meshes with the music in a way the really works.
Joan of Arch at the Stake is still an uneven, imperfect work, but it can be an impassioned and fascinating one, as it is in this beautifully recorded Supraphon set. The accompanying 40-page booklet includes texts and annotations in French, English and German. With so strong a case made for Joan, perhaps now the symphonies can begin to receive their due: the recordings, as noted above, are available, and so are the scores.