Arthur Honegger's Fifth Symphony opens with a muted cry of pain and never really gets much happier, though it does pick up a bit of color and vigor in later movements. "I have the very clear impression that we are at the end of a civilization," he told a French critic. "We must have the courage to face it calmly, as one faces death."
He translated this sense of deep pessimism tempered by stoic resignation very precisely into music. The symphony may never become very popular, but it is a noble monument: impeccable technique placed totally at the service of an austere, unblinking vision with no trace of sentimentality. It has some resemblance to Mahler and Sibelius, but the closest parallel may be the poetry of Robinson Jeffers -- or, in Honegger's language, Alfred de Vigny.
Last night in the Kennedy Center, Charles Dutoit conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in an outstanding performance of this work. Dutoit is responsible for the only available recording of Honegger's Fifth -- an item that serves to temper his rather flamboyant image on records. Last night, with the magnificent Philadelphians responding precisely to his directions, he sounded like the music's definitive interpreter.
The rest of the program balanced Honegger with a profusion of tumult, vigor, brilliance and just plain luscious sound. It opened in high gear with Richard Strauss' "Don Juan," concluded with Ravel's colorful, rhythmically exciting "Rapsodie espagnole" and climaxed before the intermission with Rachmaninoff's attractively wayward Piano Concerto No. 1. The orchestra did not settle down completely until a few minutes into the Strauss, giving the audience a few rare examples of rough tone and clumsy transitions before reaching the established Philadelphia standard.
In the Rachmaninoff, pianist Susan Starr soloed with exemplary power and precision.