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Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Symphony No. 4 Op. 281 (1939) [20.28]
Symphony No. 8 Rhodanienne Op. 362 (1957) [23.08]
Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 295 (1949) [19.23]
Ballade for piano and orchestra Op. 61 (1920) [7.57]
Orchestre Philharmonique de l'ORTF/Darius Milhaud (symphonies)
Claude Helffer (piano) (concerto; Ballade)
Orchestre National de France/David Robertson (concerto; Ballade)
rec. ADD 1968 (symphonies); DDD 1993 (concerto; Ballade)
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 0927 49982 2 [77.15]


Warners show increasing acuity of judgement as they continue to roll out Apex, their bargain price marque. In the same month that they issued a matchless historic Martinů collection (ex-Supraphon) comes this Milhaud compendium with two symphonies conducted by the composer.

The two composers have some similarities at least at superficial level. Both were prolific. Both wrote five piano concertos. Both came to the symphony in the early years of the Second World War. Both spent many sunny years in the USA - Milhaud longer than Martinů. That said Milhaud's world is quite different, less bejewelled and more athletically unadorned than Martinů's.

Dedicated to Roger Désormière and commissioned for the centenary of the 1848 Revolution the Fourth Symphony is uproarious, a faithful reflection of the revolutionary spirit both in its elevation and its clamorous brutality. Milhaud is not afraid of using dissonance but the melodic element is never lost. Ivesian rebellion is rife in the feral finale which is riven and rent by blasting and raucous energy - rather like a Walton march but one in which the composer allowed ideas to flow and flood over each other. Some of it sounds like a Havergal Brian symphony perhaps like the Ninth or the Twenty-Second. There is no doubt at all that this is a piece with the grandest of pretensions and with consummation to match.

The Eighth celebrates the Rhone - hence Rhodanienne. The composer had in mind Smetana's Vltava (Die Moldau) but his tracing of the great river from Alpine spring to the majestic Mediterranean is painted in the raging and imperishable colours of dissonance. There is some rest but not much. Try the second movement for peace and the third for the unstoppable surge and flood of the river.

The performances by the elderly composer suggest that Milhaud was vital and inventive well into old age. The recordings still sound good with some allowance being made for a tendency towards treble emphasis.

The Fourth Piano Concerto was written for Sadel Zkolowsky who premiered it with Munch and the Bostonians in 1950. He finds time for romantic graces amid the pell-mell. Probing soured Gabrieli brass writing rattles cages in the Très lent middle movement which is followed by a jazzily piquant and gracious Joyeux (echoes of his famous Scaramouche). Claude Helffer is the excellent soloist who is on his toes throughout. The Ballade has much in common with other of his 'Brazilian' works including Saudades do Brasil and Le boeuf sur le Toit. There are moments too when you can hear similarities with Lambert's Rio Grande and with the jungle pieces by Villa-Lobos and Koechlin. I wonder if Lambert ever conducted this deliciously fantastic piece. It is dedicated to Roussel.

Good brief liner notes in English, French and German.

Generosity cannot be faulted: full to the brim. A rewarding Milhaud collection. If you enjoy it you can consider the complete (12) symphonies on CPO or the complete string quartets on Naïve.

Rob Barnett


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