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Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Early String Quartets and Vocal Works – Volume 3
Four poems by Paul Claudel, Op. 26 (1915-17) [16:55]
Les Soirées de Pétrograd, Op. 55 (1919) [12:18]
Poème du journal intime de Leo Latil, Op. 73 (1921) [4:20]
String Quartet No. 6, Op. 77 (1922) [9:04]
String Quartet No. 7, Op. 87 (1925) [11:24]
String Quartet No. 8, Op. 121 (1932) [15:23]
Maarten Koningsberger (baritone) and Rudolf Jansen (piano)
Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet
rec. 1995, Ludwigsburg, Germany
Texts and translations included

Volume 3 in Troubadisc’s mid-90s series of ‘Early Strings Quartets and Vocal Works’ marque traces Milhaud’s quartets over a decade from 1922-32 and includes two song cycles and a smaller setting.

As ever, there’s much to enjoy and little to endure in the quartet cycle. No.6 was dedicated to Poulenc and premiered by the elite Pro Arte Quartet, who were to premiere No.7 as well. It opens in a slightly weightless, almost antique way whilst the independence of the four lines in the slow movement is notable – and so too the way Milhaud ensures they cohere so beautifully. The finale is irradiated by vitality and specifically the snaking viola line, the music being full of colour and folkloric flair. No.7 followed in 1925 and is the shortest of the quartet cycle. Nevertheless, its opening is full of verve, the slow Doux et sans hâte movement drenched in a melancholia that seeps into the ensuing Lent where it’s subtly transformed into a smiling introspection, played with mutes. The finale is insouciant, singing, and something of a highhearted frolic. The quartet combines precisely those qualities of introspection and open-hearted lyricism that makes the best of Milhaud’s quartets so attractive. No.8 was written in 1932 and its high point is a beautifully sustained central slow movement, haunted, freighted and deeply impressive.

The series has taken pains to balance the quartets with the song cycles, and in this case all three song settings predate the quartets, having occupied Milhaud, on and off, from 1915 to 1921. The Paul Claudel settings were composed between 1915 and 1917. Constant ostinati add urgency to the opening autumnal setting, whilst a powerfully charged chromaticism courses through the second. A declamatory element ensures that this cycle, as with so many of Milhaud’s vocal works, sits bracingly and uncomfortably – at a decidedly modern tangent – in the French chanson lineage. The incantatory element in the last setting (‘Obsession’) reveals his novelty of means and intent. Strangely the Claudel texts are not translated into English or German in the booklet, unlike the remainder of the programme. Maybe a copyright issue?

Les Soirées de Pétrograd consist of a sequence of aphoristic settings, variously poignant, expressive or light in spirit. Milhaud’s piano accompaniments are always varied and invariably fascinating, whether in moments of calming solace, of refined elegance, or cocky little marches. The Poème du journal intime de Leo Latil is another example of Milhaud’s musical means. The concentrated dissonance in this four-minute setting emphasises just how much intensity Milhaud could bring to bear, not least in another memorialising setting devoted to his old friend Latil, who had been killed during the war.

Maarten Koningsberger is the perceptive baritone in the vocal settings – as he is in the Ethel Smyth songs that Troubadisc have also recorded – and is finely joined by pianist Rudolf Jansen. As so often the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet brings incisive tonal qualities to the three quartets.

Jonathan Woolf

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