MILHAUD L’Orestie d’Eschyle
For those who mainly know Milhaud for his exotic, jazzy, congenial orchestral suites, his terse string quartets and eye-crossing productivity (400-plus opus numbers), this three-part epic spread over three discs comes as a shock with its successfully sustained length, seething dramatic intensity and musical language that anticipates better-known (but not necessarily better) works, such as the harmonic starkness of Stravinsky (Oedipus Rex), the dramaturgical spareness of Orff (Antigonae) and the heroism of Rózsa (Ben-Hur). Written with the audacity of a composer too young to fear the enormousness of the endeavour, L’Orestie d’Eschyle (‘The Oresteia of Aeschylus’) covers the narrative territory of Strauss’s Elektra but keeps going on to the more philosophical terrains after Orestes murders his adulterous mother, is pursued by the loyalist Eumenides and then put to trial by a jury of Athenians. Strauss gives these mythological figures a modern humanity; the Milhaud incarnations wrestle with universal laws of existence, the violation of which shred the overall social fabric.
The saga unfolds in tandem with Milhaud’s creative development throughout his twenties between 1913 and 1923, and becomes part of the larger narrative. Earliest parts – ‘L’Agamemnon’ and second instalment ‘Les Choéphores’ (‘The Libation Bearers’) – tend towards ostinato-driven modules, giving way to more sweeping through-composed music and considerable rhythmic savagery.
Though endlessly inventive, solo vocal writing is confined to a narrow chant-like range. The most distinctive passages of ‘Les Choéphores’ dispense with singing completely, with aggressive chant accompanied only by percussion. Though the rest of the saga is indeed sung, such chanting seems to be the composer’s inner point of reference. It’s a monster of a piece, this first recording of the whole thing owing its existence to William Bolcom, a Milhaud student in the 1950s who no doubt realised that the only hope for a modern revival was the kind of combined forces offered by the University of Michigan (where he’s faculty composer).
The steep vocal and dramatic challenges of L’Orestie are indeed met, not always spectacularly, but with more authority than the 1960 ‘Les Euménides’ archival recording from the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel conducted by Charles Bruck (INA Archives, available on qobuz.com), or Leonard Bernstein’s choral forces in his 1961 ‘Les Choéphores’ (Sony, 10/97). The Michigan soloists are good to excellent, especially Kristin Eder as Electra (a more lyrical incarnation than Strauss’s). Choruses do well with the French language and the orchestra shows occasional signs of labour (to be expected), though everyone sounds mightiest amid the most challenging polytonal sections of ‘Les Euménides’.
Igor Markevitch’s 1957 ‘Les Choéphores’ recording (DG, 5/58, 4/97) – with its insistently muscular orchestral sonorities, aggressive sense of rhythm and greater immediacy in the recorded sound – suggests just how compelling L’Orestie could be. But as it stands, the present recording is much more than a stopgap, and hopefully the beginning of a long-delayed performance life of a work that speaks vividly to our times.