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Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Symphony No. 1 Op. 210 (1940) [27:20]
Symphony No. 2 Op. 247 (1946) [28:05]
Suite provençale Op. 152 (1936) [14:13]
Orchestre du Capitole du Toulouse/Michel Plasson
rec. June 1991, Halle aux Grains, Toulouse

Milhaud was so prolific and also so uneven that few of us stray far beyond the handful of works which have stayed in the repertoire. The last work of his that I heard, Le train bleu, a ballet for Diaghilev which I had long wanted to hear, was typical: it was pleasant, competent and forgettable. So when it comes to his twelve numbered symphonies I wonder whether to take the plunge. Here we have an opportunity to sample his work in the most demanding of genres. This disc of the first two symphonies was a product of Plasson’s short-lived contract with DG. For most of his career he worked with EMI where he proved himself a reliable guide to French repertoire, and a particular champion of worthwhile though neglected works.

Milhaud was as hesitant as Brahms about tackling a symphony and said he would not do so until he was fifty. However, in 1939 he accepted a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to write a symphony to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. This made it possible for him to emigrate which he needed to do as he was Jewish. He conducted the first performance in October 1940.

The symphony starts with a tune on the flute which does indeed sound pastoral. It is variously varied and repeated. This makes for an attractive first movement but it is hardly symphonic. The second is a surprise: it begins with an angular theme on the wind which is answered with an outburst on the brass. There ensues a battle between them which the strings try to mollify. They don’t succeed. This short angry movement is nothing like anything else of Milhaud I have heard: it reminded me of the angry scherzos of Shostakovich. The third movement is grave and the fourth begins with a kind of funeral march. This turns out to be the main theme of a rondo which returns several times, ending in a very loud passage which seemed rather over-scored.

The second symphony dates from five years later but is, if anything, even more filled with the bitterness of wartime. This time the commission came from the Koussevitzky Foundation and Milhaud again conducted the first performance, in Boston in 1946. Again we begin with a flute tune. The second movement is a kind of dance without gaiety, the third a melancholy meditation featuring a solo cor anglais, as in Franck’s symphony, the fourth wispy and evanescent. The finale has a bold beginning which leads to a fugue. Alas, this sounds like an exercise for an examination – it has nothing of the verve of the jazzy fugue in La Création du Monde.

In these symphonies Milhaud never seems to me have quite sorted out what kind of symphony he wanted to write or what kind of idiom he wanted to write it in. I would contrast him with Martinů, also in exile in the USA and also turning to the symphony after a career writing other kinds of music, but finding a natural and successful idiom for them.

To complete the disc we have the Suite provençale, which derives from incidental music for a play of 1936. Here I feel Milhaud is at home, away from the stringencies and expectations of symphonies. This is charming, light and varied, the sort of thing he was good at.

These performances are beautifully played and recorded – the rather congested sound at the ending of the first symphony is, I think, down to Milhaud rather than to Plasson or the recording engineers. Plasson recorded only one other disc of Milhaud symphonies before his contract ran out, coupling the sixth and seventh, available from Arkiv. His main rival is Alun Francis, who has recorded all twelve on five CDs (CPO 999 656-2). I am glad to have heard these works but I do not think Milhaud was a natural symphonist. Everyone can enjoy the Suite provençale, but the symphonies are for the determined and curious.

Stephen Barber

Previous review (original release): Rob Barnett


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