Helmuth Rilling / SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

Arthur Honegger: Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher

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Arthur Honegger's 1935 composition Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) is a rather curious work: an oratorio for adult choir, children's choirs, singers, and several speakers, including one portraying Joan herself. It is like a hybrid of oratorio, melodrama, and film music, which was a fundamental influence on Honegger's style during this period, and it is immensely enjoyable if performed by confident and enthusiastic forces. Those forces are a bit difficult to assemble, but competence is not in question here with a pair of excellent regional south German choirs, the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the little-known Knabenchor collegium iuvenum Stuttgart, teaming with the Southwest German Radio Symphony Stuttgart under conductor Helmuth Rilling. This conductor was known earlier in his career mostly for Bach performances but has been recording major monuments of 20th century choral music. At times he has the unduly reserved attitude of the earlier conductors who came out of the early music tradition, and there's a grandeur missing here that was evident in Eugene Ormandy's classic recording of the work. But the balances and the overall execution are superior in this texturally complex work, with the singing soloists weaving colorfully in and out of the narrated story, and Sylvie Rohrer's Sprechstimme-inflected Joan emerging as a natural character. Hänssler Classic's engineers, working in the Beethovenhalle of the Liederhalle Stuttgart, are some of the biggest stars of the show.

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