Milhaud String Quartets
Are reviewers paid to give answers or merely to identify relevant questions? I hope the latter‚ because listening to this box set of all 18 Milhaud quartets has left me more puzzled than I was before.
Basically the question I ask myself is‚ ‘Who was Milhaud?’ On the personal front the answer is clear enough. He was the calm‚ still centre round which much of the hectic life of Paris in the ’20s revolved‚ he was an inspiring teacher‚ he was a muchloved friend‚ he was the composer of at least one masterpiece‚ La création du monde‚ and of a number of lighthearted gems from Catalogue de fleurs to Scaramouche. But he was also the composer of the Fifth Quartet. This work is the one that starts in four keys at once‚ prompting displeasure from Poulenc and a statement from SaintSaëns that such polytonal exercises do not constitute music but ‘un charivari’. One wonders how many historians‚ duly noting this progress in the name of modernism‚ have actually heard the result. SaintSaëns may still be regarded in some quarters as a piece of flotsam thrown up by the tide of history‚ but for me he was spot on: not wishing to blind readers with technicalities‚ I have to say that the Fifth Quartet is an absolute stinker. How on earth did Milhaud come to write it?
One answer might be that the quartet medium was the laboratory in which he liked to conduct his experiments. However‚ the facts don’t entirely support this. After the Fifth Quartet‚ and noting Poulenc’s disapproval‚ Milhaud dedicated the Sixth Quartet to his friend and colleague‚ and a more delightful work it would be hard to find. There are polytonal moments certainly‚ but they act as ‘agréments’ to the basic G major‚ and the irregular time signatures in the finale counteract Milhaud’s tendency to stolidity. The Seventh Quartet‚ too‚ is a lovely work‚ ending here in a marvellous diminuendo – whether aided by the engineers or not‚ who cares?
All in all‚ I have four main problems with these quartets. First‚ the barely relenting thickness of the textures. This reaches its apogee in the Octet formed by Quartets Nos 14 and 15 being played simultaneously (again‚ noted in all good history books; again‚ a stinker)‚ but is an alltooprevalent feature elsewhere. Secondly‚ the deliberate mismatch between jolly tonal tunes‚ for which Milhaud had a considerable gift‚ and gritty‚ toothgrinding harmonies‚ so that I found myself dying to normalise the harmonies in order to set the tunes free. Then there’s his penchant for getting on to a rhythmic track and sticking there through thin and‚ especially‚ thick. And finally‚ the difficulty I often have in knowing where I am in an argument whose logic escapes me. Too often also a movement (the ‘Mexicana’ finale of Quartet No 13‚ for instance) outstays its welcome. I ask‚ was Milhaud a ‘symphonic’ composer?
I think not. For me‚ the best music in these quartets comes in movements that are either dancelike or reflective. The second movement of Quartet No 10 is in a sprightly 2/4; how sad that it’s followed by a movement of gloom and doom and by a finale that prompted me to write in my notes ‘dense and horrid’. The second movement of Quartet No 12‚ muted throughout‚ has some lovely moments; a pity that it’s preceded by one of these problematic first movements – not ugly‚ but one whose message I found myself puzzling to discern.
The Parisii Quartet play wonderfully‚ whether bursting with energy‚ dreaming dreams or footing it featly‚ and a special bouquet goes to the leader for his handling of the often cruelly high first violin line. I don’t believe Milhaud could have asked for more persuasive advocates.
My own hits‚ possibles and misses‚ for what they’re worth‚ are: hits – Nos 6‚ 7‚ 11‚ 16; possibles –ÊNos 1‚ 2‚ 3‚ 4‚ 12‚ 13‚ 17; misses (to be approached only when feeling strong) – Nos 5‚ 8‚ 9‚ 10‚ 14‚ 15‚ 14+15‚ 18.