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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
rec. 1953, 1954, 1968, 1974, Louisville, Kentucky
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Mester, Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra, in their own way, ploughed a courageous path comparable with that of Dan Godfrey in Bournemouth (1890-1930) and Henry Wood at the Proms. The difference is that Whitney and Mester’s legacy has been preserved in a far-sighted recording programme. The project was most active during the LP era yet it was dully packaged and distribution beyond the USA was pretty much of a nothing. The sales were predominantly based on subscriptions which seems to have left little room for export activity. Although there was some because I recall fishing a handful of their LPs out of the racks of Harold Moores in London circa 1979.

These First Edition CDs at long last begin to make substantial drifts of the almost encyclopedic Louisville legacy accessible to all and sundry. The masters for the entire series have been acquired by Matthew Walters whose First Edition Music outfit operates out of Santa Fe and whose website marketplace is easily accessible to all.

These analogue Milhaud tapes are not entirely unknown outside the Louisville LPs. The Symphony and Ronsard songs were issued on LP by RCA Gold Label in the UK in 1977. Otherwise that’s about it.

Milhaud was one of that starburst of emigrés who ended up making a career in the USA. One wonders how much native talents was suffocated by this fascination with the foreign (by no means an exclusively North American phenomenon). A Provençal Jew, he was born in Marseilles, brought up in Provence and left for the USA in 1940 borne along by the bow-wave of the Nazi occupation. Before his departure he spent time in Brazil with Paul Claudel and found himself bracketed among Les Six in Paris. The libretto of his opera Christoph Colomb was by Claudel. He ingested the influence of Jazz in London and Harlem (1920, 1922) and had Christoph Colomb premiered in the Kroll Opera in Berlin (1930). Unlike other emigrés he did return to his native land. In 1947 he joined the staff of the Paris Conservatoire but commuted between France and Mills College in the USA until 1971. His rate of production was itself phenomenal. There are 443 opus numbered works and the style varies sometimes unnervingly; he is not alone in that, of course.

The Symphony and the Ouverture Méditerranéenne are about half a century old now. The Ouverture and Kentuckiana, both Louisville commissions, are in mono and both are conducted by Whitney while the rest are directed by Jorge Mester and were taken down in stereo. The Ouverture is a tumultuously active piece, fresh-faced and fully of aestival life and brimming optimism. Like Kentuckiana it was recorded in the lively acoustic space of the Columbia Auditorium. The sound is set back more than is usual with these Louisville ‘documents’ but this is all to the good in this clamorous celebration of life. It reminded me in general spirit of the Bostoniana and Bacchanale of Ibert (who himself wrote his Louisville Concerto for Whitney). Kentuckiana is a direct tribute to Milhaud’s commissioning orchestra. It is a pell-mell, almost Graingerian, mediation between the folk voices of the Kentucky ‘mountain men’, the pioneer tradition and the fiddles of barn-dance. After the sheer uproarious high spirits of Kentuckiana (paralleling the poetry of Roy Harris’s Kentucky Spring) we come to the sombre Cortège funèbre. The music’s origins are in an eleven minute sequence written for the Malraux film Espoir to accompany a funeral procession in honour of the Spanish Republican soldiers who had destroyed the bridge at Teruel. The balmy tones of the saxophone make for a distinctive voice within this impressive and tragically symphonic piece. It is dedicated to Koussevitsky and with its funereal mien would make an apt companion to Lennox Berkeley’s Nocturne and Alwyn’s Symphony Hydriotaphia. The Quatre chansons de Ronsard are a song-cycle with orchestra. They were written shortly after Milhaud’s arrival in the States. It was premiered at the Waldorf-Astoria in December 1941. The soloist was Lily Pons and her distinctive coloratura voice can be heard in Paula Seibel’s distinctively French voice effervescing and dancing with joie de vivre. The spirit of Bizet and the carefree insouciance of the Canteloube Auvergnat songs lives! Once again the saxophone puts in an appearance, this time as a troubadour in Tais-toi (tr. 7). The sung texts are printed in the original French with English translations. This recording represents an extremely engaging and spirited performance. I would still like to hear the original recording made by Pons with an orchestra conducted by André Kostelanetz shortly after the work’s premiere.

Milhaud’s symphonies have done fairly well recently. All twelve have been recorded on CPO conducted by Alun Francis. These are supplemented by two CDs on Deutsche Grammophon both deleted but one of which has been reissued very recently. The reissued disc contains the first two symphonies and the Suite provençale with the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse conducted by Michel Plasson on 476 2197 (originally released on DG 435 437-2GH). Then there was a comparison recording by the same forces also on DG which included the Ouverture méditerranéenne on 439 939-2GH. This can be read with the classic Erato recordings of symphonies 4 and 8 made by the Orchestre Philharmonique de l'ORTF and the composer in 1968 coupled with more recent recordings of the Piano Concerto No. 4 and Ballade for piano and orchestra now on Warner Classics Apex 0927 49982 2.

The Sixth Symphony, like the Ronsard Chansons was recorded shortly after Milhaud’s death in Geneva, Switzerland on 22 June 1974. The Symphony is thoughtful, often sunny in disposition, exultant and even nostalgic. It has more in common with the Suite Provençale and the First Symphony than with the tougher dissonance-soused reaches of Symphonies 2, 4 and 8. It was commissioned by the Boston Symphony and the Koussevitsky Foundation. It was premiered in Boston on 7 October 1955. Howard Taubman put it extremely well in his review shortly after the New York premiere by Munch and the Bostonians: "... an accessible and agreeable work ... fine, long-breathed ideas ... worked out with simplicity and concision."

This is an extremely attractive and varied introduction to Milhaud. I cannot imagine a more suitable prelude to an exploration of this composer’s work.

Rob Barnett

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