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Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 210 (1939) [27:21]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 247 (1944) [27:03]
Suite provençale, Op. 152b (1936) [14:03]
Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson
Rec. June 1991, Halle aux Grains, Toulouse. DDD
Originally recorded in association with Association des Industriels et Entreprises Amis de l'Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse and first released as DG 435 437-2GH
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 476 2197 [69:49]

Two French symphonies dating from Milhaud’s early years in the USA.

The First Symphony begins with a blithely strolling theme. The pilgrim wanders through an ever-changing landscape of delicately touched-in colours - some of them dark. The second movement is more clearly troubled: turmoil rather than torment. Solo instruments (violin and woodwind) emote and stand clear before falling back into the heaving background. This work represents a pilgrimage into wintry discontent. The great cortege of the finale has overtones of victory won but achieved through desolation. While there are moments of Provencal innocence (1:50) these are suborned and undermined by the tragic undertow of history. The Symphony ends loud but there is no triumph for the still-small voice.

Five years after Milhaud had conducted the premiere of the First at Chicago he was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation to write a further symphony. The dissonance and malcontent most strongly asserted in the First’s two central movements here enters the scene immediately. There is some of that rustic child’s innocence but over the first three movement it is rarely allowed to rise free from the nightmare ridden landscape; not that the horrors are directly stated in the first movement - like an M.R. James story they are more usually suggested than stated face-on. The two middle movements have their darkness but in the next movement this gradually metamorphoses into sorrow perhaps associated with the times. In the fourth (of five) movement there are several moments where Milhaud’s knowledge of the then-contemporary American symphony, especially those by Harris, arises. Similar episodes can be found in Milhaud’s Service Sacré recently issued on both Accord and Naxos Milken. The finale: called Alleluia, is playfully fugal, athletic and less plagued with the tragic march of time. The composer ends the work in triumph this time unclouded by loss.

The language of the two symphonies is a songful amalgam of Ravel-like delight and Hindemithian disillusion. Dissonance is used as part of the colour-scheme. In no sense are either of these scores in the Schoenberg camp. There are some parallels with the Martinů symphonies also written and welcomed in the USA. The Suite Provencal is for a fully specified orchestra. The work comprises eight movements each tempo-labelled. We are not pointed at particular dances or landscapes though Milhaud may have had his own scenario. The Provence-based ideas are drawn from the incidental music he wrote for the play Bertran de Born. Milhaud successfully fends off neo-classicism, although a French pastoral Pulcinella does insinuate himself into the proceedings from time to time as do drum-clamorous premonitions of a work dating from a decade later, E.J. Moeran’s Serenade. The music has the flavour of bright-eyed and cheeky rustic chivalry, with archaic country dances (Susato and Praetorius) and wind serenades which sometimes rise to majestic Handelian heights (funereal in the case of the penultimate movement).

This disc makes its welcome reappearance in the DG-Universal ‘Rosette Collection’ hooked on the accolade extended to this and other Universal discs in the Penguin Guide to CDs.

The original disc had a Toulouse Capitole/Plasson sequel; far too easily forgotten in the shadow of the CPO complete traversal by Alun Francis. That sequel offered Milhaud Symphonies: 6 and 7 with the Ouverture méditerranéenne on DG 439 939-2GH. There are no signs of that disc resurfacing so if you see it in a secondhand shop you know what to do.

At mid-price this is a great bargain. In idiomatic performances handsomely recorded this disc opens the door to Milhaud’s distinctive brand of moody symphonism and blithe pastoral innocence.

Rob Barnett


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