The world of Milhaud is increasingly well served with only his operas being largely neglected. His symphonies and string quartets have been recorded complete by CPO and Naïve respectively. DG had two very attractive discs of four of his thirteen symphonies then stopped. There is also a stunning and far too easily overlooked VoxBox that collects all the chamber symphonies in gutsy yet yielding performances and recordings. Dutton and a host of other small labels have all added to the bubbling soup. Now along come Divine Art with a disc packed full with a connoisseur’s selection of historic recordings. The no-nonsense sound shows the sort of attentive and skilled remastering that makes Divine Art’s vintage Sibelius symphonies disc such a refreshing experience.
The four movement Trio places the dignified Bachian melancholy of the second movement alongside an Ouverture that rattles and sways with the rumba of a street carnival. Milhaud is a great one for the gamin twinkle in the eye here carried by the clarinet in movements I and III. The finale finds a terrible Handelian seriousness bordering on tragedy but relaxes drastically to recapture the cheekiness of the street urchin. The piece was culled from Milhaud’s incidental music for Anouilh’s play Le Voyageur sans Baggages.
Small-scale chamber music is then left behind with Monteux’s 1945 recording of the Protée suite. Here the pre-echoes and echoes of Stravinsky, Honegger (Pacific 231) and Mossolov (Steel Factory) can be heard in the Ouverture and the Final. Some of this is frankly mechanistic. I would not have been surprised to hear a Varese siren at times or one of Mossolov’s massive suspended steel sheets being hammered. Apparently there were riots at several Milhaud premieres in the 1920s. To offset the occasional emotional obduracy Milhaud deploys his signature rumba-tango rhythms at various points a la Villa-Lobos. There is also a staggeringly graceful Nocturne with a prominent troubadour role for the woodwind principals in turn. The Chamber Symphony No. 3 with a vintage elite English team is playful yet seasoned with peppery dissonance. The lapping Calme movement provides respite.
Until this point we have been listening to recordings made in 1952, 1945, 1936. The Westminster recordings from 1950 Vienna that fill out the rest of the disc sound beefily clean, clear and honest – full of strongly registered detail. The VSO throw themselves into an idiom which they must have found uncongenial. I wonder whether Henry Swoboda had to work hard to secure these convincingly idiomatic performances; I suspect so. The neo-classical Serenade is wild and woolly, echoing with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. The Five Studies are little genre pieces of which the Doucement starts in an echo of Ravel’s Pavane but soon becomes a subtle essay in dissonant suggestion. Sombre is also full of aggression, threat and dissolution. The final Romantique again wrong-foots the listener by starting smilingly playful but then throwing in all sorts of wrong-note gaminess and queasy harmonic touches. It is comparable to a wildly dissonant marriage of Walton’s Façade and Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds. The seven movement suite of Maximilien music is drawn from a 1930s opera of the same name about the proud Mexican emperor and his downfall brought about by the hero Juarez. The Dies Irae is let loose through the opening march. There is some cheeky playfulness (Interlude 3) as we would expect from Milhaud but much of this music is alive with clashing tonalities, truculence and dark inimical storms on the horizon. Again the shadow of Igor Markevitch’s coldly impressive music passes across the score. The disc ends with Three Rag Caprices, the first of which is sensationally Bliss-like (Conversations); the Romance is remarkably tender and unequivocal for a change. The final sappy caprice has jazzy howls, Weill-like sarcasm, pizzicato playfulness and sudden romantic interjections by the strings.
More please, Divine Art. Perhaps you could do the same for an unhackneyed selection of early recordings of Honegger, Prokofiev or Stravinsky.
The twelve page booklet gives full discographical details and plentiful written background on the composer and the works.
This is a distinctive entry in the Milhaud lists. These are comparatively early works and valuable for that. Milhaud speaks in a language shot through with Latin-American carnival, peppery dissonance, jazzy insouciance, nervy neo-classicism, pastoral repose and souped up, whooping, if strangely cold, exuberance.
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