The second volume in Troubadisc’s invaluable and revealing series devoted to the early string quartets and vocal music of Darius Milhaud was recorded twenty-five years ago. It’s a measure of the stylistically perceptive level of performances and the generally good recording quality that it hasn’t much aged and continues to offer much to the Milhaud collector.
The Third, Fourth and Fifth quartets occupied him from 1916 to 1920. The two-movement Third features a soprano soloist who sings a phrase from Journal by Milhaud’s great friend, the poet Léo Latil who had been killed in battle a matter of months previously (‘What is this longing for death, and which death is it?’). Inevitably it’s saturated in melancholy and loss and the opening movement is an elegy of great breadth and eloquence. The song is slow, almost slowing in fact to stasis, with suspensions suggesting a bodily and emotional paralysis. It is probably the most devastatingly funereal work Milhaud ever wrote.
No. 4, in the very greatest imaginable contrast, was written in Rio in 1918. The opening is lithe in the best French vif tradition but the central slow movement hearkens back to the funereal elements of the earlier work but which this time are more agitated and less numbed than in No.3, the music incrementally falling away from intensity and speed. The finale resumes the sunshine exuberance of the first movement, full of verve and bronzed good spirits. No.5 is dedicated to Schoenberg and shows some of his influence. Indeed, the following year Milhaud gave the French premiere of Pierrot lunaire after no fewer than twenty-five rehearsals. The Quartet’s abundant polytonality, the four players pretty much going their own way, is the work’s most striking feature. Its pungency, and the remote expression of the slow movement are also distinctive. The movement indications Chantant, vif et léger, Lent and Très animé might lead one to conclude, innocently, another conventionally proportioned French quartet. That would be astronomically wide of the mark.
This disc also includes the world premiere recording of his six vocal pastorals called Machines agricoles. The voice leads the seven instruments, with Ulrike Sonntag ably negotiating the Les Six hijinks, not least in the obvious scherzo with its zesty rhythmic wit and the music’s Gallic insouciance. The other song cycle, Catalogue des fleurs, is much more aphoristic even than the pastorals. With texts famously taken from a florist’s catalogue this was a clear provocation but the aperçu-like results and tight sense of characterisation override Milhaud’s épater le bourgeois tendencies.
There are fine and full notes with texts and translations into English and German. The Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet prove fearless exponents of the quartets aided by the other instrumentalists in the song cycles. If you overlooked this disc it, and its confrères, form a tight group of early-Milhaud recordings well deserving of your time.
Performers (Machines, Catalogue)
Deborah Marshall (clarinet), Irmela Nolte (flute), Michael Weigel (bassoon), Stefan Berg (viola), Renate Eggebrecht (violin), Friedemann Kupsa (cello), Arpat Gyorgy (double bass), Linda Horowitz (conductor)
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