Milhaud Little Symphonies and Little Operas

Author: 
Christopher Headington

Milhaud Little Symphonies and Little Operas

  • Chamber Symphony No. 1, 'Le printemps'
  • Chamber Symphony No. 2, 'La Pastorale'
  • Chamber Symphony No. 3, 'Sérénade'
  • Chamber Symphony No. 4
  • Chamber Symphony No. 5
  • Chamber Symphony No. 6
  • (L')Enlèvement d'Europe
  • (L')Abandon d'Ariane
  • (La) Déliverance de Thésée

Mention getting six symphonies and three operas on one CD, and your friends may nervously wonder about your state of mind, or mutter of technology yet to come. But thanks to that protean composer Milhaud and Koch Schwann's artists, here is just such a package and an enticing one at that.
In fact these ''little symphonies'', as the composer called them in his autobiography, Notes sans musique (Paris: 1949), are chamber works for various combinations: for example, No. 4 is for ten strings and No. 5 for ten wind, while No. 6 is uniquely written for wordless vocal quartet, oboe and cello. They date from 1917-23, overlapping the young composer's stay in Brazil as a diplomat, and their characteristically vital, busy language (which is often polytonal) seems to reflect the teeming natural world of the Brazilian rain forest that he loved. Certainly the first movement of No. 1, prominently featuring the harp, has a delightful freshness that is not diminished by the audacious final cadence with its combination of A major and B flat major chords followed by one of G major. Space does not allow me to wax lyrical about the many felicities that follow as these little works unfold (though I can't resist mentioning the comic fugal finale to No. 4): so let me merely say that their invention is considerable and their charm utterly winning. Furthermore, these performances from Karl Anton Rickenbacher and his Polish artists (recorded in Cracow) are a model of style, showing affection as well as understanding, and the recording is no less satisfying, allowing the detail of these swarming textures to emerge naturally.
The three operas-minutes are based on episodes from Greek myth, and the five scenes of L'abandon d'Ariane (the longest of them) last just ten minutes. But although hardly heavyweight in style, they are tougher expressively than the other music here: indeed, the last miniature tells the tragic story of Theseus, Phaedra and the ill-fated Hippolytus. Again, the performances have authority, and we owe much to these artists for letting us have such fine music on record: try the Ariadne opera for a sample. My only complaint is that the singers are placed rather backwardly: words are thus unclear, and the otherwise excellent booklet provides no texts.'

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