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Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
String Quartet No.1, Op.5 91912) [25:17]
String Quartet No.2, Op.16 (1914-15) [24:57]
Four Songs, Op.20 (1914) [14:29]
Three Songs, Op.59 (1919-20) [2:19]
Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet
Ulrike Sonntag (soprano)
Rudolf Jansen (piano)
rec. 1994, Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg
Texts and translations into English and German

An opportunity has arisen to explore Troubadisc’s back catalogue as this and other releases are still available but have not been reviewed on this site before. The label’s Milhaud series was valuable for exploring, in tandem, the early vocal works and string quartets and this inaugural volume presented the first two quartets and two vocal cycles that traversed the First World War.

The First Quartet of 1912 shows a strong immersion in the obvious models; ripe Debussian chords, allied to an expressive and languid terrain and an admixture of Ravelian modality. When it came to a 1950 revision Milhaud thought seriously of jettisoning the third movement which, with its overtly intense chromaticisms, might have seemed too much of a good thing for his older self. Fortunately, he left it in, as it prefaces the gloriously febrile, folkloric sunshine of the finale.

The five-movement Second Quartet was completed during 1914-15 and is amongst his longest works in the cycle. It’s also full of incident, variations of texture and colour and syncopation; never a dull moment - not that there is really ever a dull moment with Milhaud. There’s a moody funeral movement followed by the pizzicato-drenched scurry of a Scherzo contrasted with pastoral charm and a finale the occasional angularity of which is full of crispness.

The Four Songs, Op.20 are settings of poems by Léo Latil and were composed in 1914. They are markedly out of kilter with the conventional strain of chanson writing of the time. It’s not merely the dissonance but the general feel that sets Milhaud apart. Yet he was also an inheritor of certain recurring themes in French keyboard writing, one of which is birdsong, and which irradiates Le Rossignol which is dappled, witty, subtle and concise. The final song is not as stylistically novel as its confreres but it’s no less engaging for all that. These settings form a strong contrast to the 1919-20 Jean Cocteau cycle of Three Songs. These aperçu-like pieces, of which none lasts longer than 47 seconds, are both bitonal and insouciant which is not altogether surprising given the subject matter which includes cigar-smoking and a merry-go-round.

The performances of the quartets are by the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet, whose bracing tone quality is appropriate for Milhaud’s early works. Ulrike Sonntag and Rudolf Jansen make a fine team in the songs. The excellent notes are supported by texts and translations as one would hope. If you missed these recordings on their first appearance – they were recorded back in 1994 – they remain tenaciously in the catalogue and are well worth investigating.

Jonathan Woolf


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