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Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Ouverture Méditerranéenne, for orchestra Op. 330 (1953) [6:38]
Kentuckiana - Divertissement on Twenty Kentucky Airs (1948) [6:52]
Cortège funèbre (1939) [14:00] *
Quatre chansons de Ronsard (1941) [9:43] *
Symphony No. 6 (1955) [29:18] *
Paula Seibel (soprano)
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester *
Recorded 1953, 1954, 1968 and 1974, Louisville, Kentucky

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Those of us who used to haunt specialist record shops in our glittering youth will have fallen upon those rough and ready Louisville LPs with as much alacrity as we dived on the latest vinyl-pitted, plastic-covered Melodiya. I’m still waiting for some symphonic Miaskovsky to appear to allow an upgrade but in the meantime here is something just as good; revivification of those pioneering American recordings, now appearing on First Edition with a panoply of recording information, booklet notes (some reprinted from the original LPs) and well restored sound.

The first I’ve come across is this Milhaud disc, especially valuable inasmuch as two were Louisville commissions. The Ouverture Méditerranéenne was one such in 1953. Fulsome and warm, with effortless string cantilever, and punchy trumpets this is the aural analogue of a Matisse. The sound is rather brash and perspective-less but the joie de vivre survives intact. Kentuckiana - Divertissement on Twenty Kentucky Airs is a puckishly long-winded title for this other Louisville commission. This is a fusion of a testosterone-injected Grainger and some muscular Robert Russell Bennett; enjoyable but not too serious.

The Cortège funèbre is cut from different, pre-War cloth. It was originally written for a Malraux film, Espoir. It has an appositely grim sonority; polytonal, suspenseful, with a role for saxophone that may remind one of La Creation du Monde - though in this funereal context it’s more a matter of texture. A blaring trumpet courses through, rather reminiscent of Honegger.

Quatre chansons de Ronsard were premiered (and first recorded) by Lily Pons and her husband Andre Kostelanetz in 1941. The Louisville recording dates from 1974 and was conducted by Jorge Mester. Paula Seibel has a light, forward sounding voice that occasionally struggles with the tessitura. She’s particularly fine however over the warm cushion and beneficent wind chording of the second song, To Cupid, and in the vibrant melismas of the third. Listen out too to the fine percussion, joyous affirmative vocal and the slinky sax in the last of the four.

Which leaves the Sixth Symphony of 1955, a four movement work joyeux et robuste to cite Milhaud’s indication for the finale. His lyricism is to fore with waltzing pizzicato in the first movement and a larky ear for timbres in the second (note the sepulchral lower brass). Perky winds and snarly trumpets add fizz to the texture and there’s a warm but harmonically and timbrally active slow movement, full of colour. The finale has strong roles for solo violin and the winds but also some bracing and big tuttis.

There are competing versions of some of these works (the symphonic cycle on CPO will be on most adherents’ shelves by now) but First Edition has done auspiciously here in returning these pioneering and still impressive accounts to the catalogue.

Jonathan Woolf



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