Before I start reviewing this CD, an apology and an explanation. I would never, under normal circumstances, review any disc that is not available for sale in the U.S.A. I hesitated to review it, but gave in when I heard the quality of the music and of the performances. Also, of the various works here, only the first and last are currently available on CD in alternate versions. The Symphonic Suite No. 2 was last available on an independent CD produced by Innovative Music Productions but now out of print, and the Serenade for Orchestra, Five Etudes for Piano and Orchestra, and the Suite from Maximillian were not available in any incarnation I could find.
The recordings presented here range in date from 1936 to 1952 and were recorded—sadly for our availability options in the U.S.—mostly for American labels, the lone exception being the Little Chamber Symphony No. 3 which was made for British Columbia. The op. 157b was recorded for Period Records, the last four works for Westminster in 1950, and worst of all from a copyright-infringement standpoint, the Symphonic Suite No. 2 for RCA Victor. I think it is a crying shame that important and valuable classical recordings that barely sold enough copies to break even in the first place should be tossed onto the pile of the Elvis Presley, Maria Callas, and Beatles recordings that the new 75-year copyright law actually seeks to protect.
In case you have trouble deciphering my split credits above (I know I would!), op. 157b is performed by the trio of Parrenin, Delécluse, and Haas-Hamburger; op. 57 performed by the SF Symphony conducted by Monteux; op. 71 by the quintet of Pougnet, Pini, Kell, Draper, and Eskdale conducted by Goehr; and the rest by the Vienna Symphony conducted by Swoboda, with Badura-Skoda guesting on the op. 63. Pristine Audio’s restorations are, as usual, highly musical and aurally full-toned. Mr. Rose states that he had the most trouble with the Trio Suite, which is the most recent of these recordings. Apparently, Period’s inexpensive mike setup resulted in some intermodular distortion between the violin and clarinet. I can hear how this was so, especially since Milhaud wrote for these instruments to play in unison with their sounds an octave apart, but the result reveals a performance of wonderful spirit and superb interplay between the three instruments.
I must admit to not having heard any of this music prior to auditioning this CD, but of falling in love with all of it. Milhaud had that rarest of combinations for a French composer, the usual Gallic elegance tempered with Teutonic complexity and drama. From his earliest years as a known composer he was fascinated with American jazz of the early period, particularly with its superimposition of syncopated melodies and improvisations “on a bass of austere regularity.” We tend to forget nowadays that the majority of early jazz musicians preferred the kind of solid, unvarying four-four beat that later loosened up and became as rhythmically fluid as the improvisations above it, and although Milhaud was not to hear true jazz for some years—his early exposures were all to white copycats who had very little idea of how to swing—he intuitively grasped the true nature of the music, far better, in fact, than Stravinsky—who in the late 1920s had access to authentic sources. (Ravel also had access to authentic sources, and he responded with music of much greater subtlety and refinement than Milhaud’s but not with as much excitement.)
The op. 157b Suite, composed in 1936, is the most mature music on the disc. It is atypical of Milhaud in that it is fairly simple and straightforward, much like the music of Poulenc. The tempo of the Ouverture seems, to my ears, to be a sort of irregularly syncopated 6/8 meter, with the accented beats changing every few bars. “Divertissement” is a lullaby that starts out for violin and clarinet only, with piano joining in after the exposition is full and complete. This second section is a different theme, and though the music is tonal, and attractive, these melodies seem somehow elusive, not easy for the mind to grasp. The development of the A theme is played by the piano with violin and clarinet playing whole notes in thirds and fourths. The third movement, “Jeu,” is almost a folk dance played without the piano at all. The last movement, “Introduction and Finale,” is a set piece in itself that could be played alone, the somber, serious opening giving way to a joyful, swinging 6/8 piece in syncopated rhythm that could easily be a cabaret song if its melody were not so elusive and its harmonies not so complex. The trio of Parrenin, Delécluse, and Haas-Hamburger play with both delicacy and verve.
The Symphonic Suite grew from a few incidental pieces that Milhaud wrote for the satirical drama Protée by his friend Paul Claudel. In 1919 he was asked to develop the music, add more pieces, and use a large orchestra. This Ouverture is far more powerful and less playful than that of the trio suite, building from a quiet sonority of flute over low brasses a swaggering habanera rhythm to climaxes powered by the basses, low brass, and timpani in tango rhythm. A more straightforward 4/4 interlude is again interrupted by the habanera, which becomes ever more violent in tone and ominous in feeling. Trumpets in triplets and trilling flutes lead to a churning, muscular passage before the quiet ending. The Prelude and Fugue again builds from a position of quietude through the strings to the brass section, playing quite excitedly while the rest of the orchestra provides a backdrop. I may be totally off-base here, but I hear in this music and its orchestration a very similar aesthetic to that used around the time of this recording (1945) by the Stan Kenton orchestra. The following Pastorale is also restless, the Latin syncopated rhythms maintaining a churning undercurrent of unease even as the strings try to play lyrically, eventually erupting yet again in a sort of tango-habanera, with very eerie effects created by the orchestration of muted trumpets against a repeated figure played by winds scored in seconds. An agitated double-time passage leads us back to the restless “pastorale” theme, which is again interrupted by brass outbursts. Every attempt to instill a pastoral mood is thwarted by tension and unease. By contrast, the nocturne is gentle and placid, with only a small hint of the unease that pervades the other movements. The finale returns us to the drama of the other movements, yet there seems to be a more positive tone to the music, more exultant than ominous despite its various bitonal passages. The performance given here by Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony seems to my mind ideal, emphasizing structure and clarity in addition to a wonderful palette of moods and colors.
By contrast, the Little Symphony No. 3 is a quite whimsical work, using a quintet like a chamber orchestra. The language here is extremely compact, a Francophile answer to Webern. This particular performance was included in a 78-rpm set issued by EMI as the “Columbia History of Music by Ear and Eye,” and is conducted with appropriate Gallic lightness by Walter Goehr. The op. 62 Serenade for full orchestra sounds like a slightly expanded relative of the op. 71, though since it was written first the opposite is probably true. The largely ignored Henry Swoboda gives us an elegant, well-thought-out performance.
I’m thinking that the four works conducted by Swoboda probably filled out the entire LP disc originally issued on Westminster WL5051; if so, I am glad to have them all available here. Pianist Paul Badura-Skoda makes a guest appearance in the Five Etudes, op. 63, and his playing, typically incisive if lacking in force, blends nicely into the orchestral fabric. This music, despite using a full orchestra, is in some ways even less full-sounding than the Serenade, particularly in the graceful second movement, marked Doucement. The third movement, titled Fugues: Vif et rythme, is a fugue in A for the woodwinds superimposed with a three-part fugue in D♭ for the brass, a four-part fugue in F for the strings, and a fugue with a subject combining the notes of all three tonalities in the piano. The fourth movement, written in a dense atonal style, is a musical palindrome, the first 20 bars written backwards note for note and using the same instrumentation. “Sombre” is its title, and somber it is—perhaps even a little sour. By contrast the last movement, “Romantique: trés animé,” sounds light and airy, even playful, though contrasting tonality is again heard.
The suite from Milhaud’s opera Maximilien is in the same vein. The opera from which it is drawn was a disaster when it premiered at the Paris Opèra in 1932, the rich complexity of its score deemed totally inappropriate for an opera. Perhaps that is so; I have never heard it; but the suite is fascinating and delightful. Maybe it’s just me, but I find Swoboda’s conducting underpowered for this music. He made me wish that Monteux were back at the helm, yet there is no denying that he gives us a good rendering of the score. Despite the delight that I experienced from listening, I felt that I was missing a dimension of energy, and emotional involvement, that Milhaud of all French composers seems to warrant.
By contrast, the Trois Rag Caprices are rhythmically more incisive performances that still have Gallic elegance and flow. The first movement, marked “dry and robust,” whimsically presents music that is energetic yet polytonal. The “Romance” is quite lovely if typically elusive, opening with the flute and truly romantic harmonies. This entire piece seems to me about as far from ragtime as you are likely to get, and even imagining a more robust performance I find it hard to believe that this piece can “rag.” Conversely, the last movement, précis et nerveux , combines the energy of ragtime with the elegance of a waltz—a typically odd Milhaud combination. After a fairly straightforward opening, additional keys and rhythms come in that lead the music to a sort of polyrhythmic, polytonal ragtime dance.
I almost feel guilty in declaring this to be one of the finest and most interesting discs I have yet received for review in light of the distribution problems cited in the opening paragraphs. I can only hope that someday, someone will make an allowance in the new copyright laws for non-Callas classical recordings made between 50 and 75 years ago.