Darius Milhaud is known to most as one of Les Six, the post-World War I French group whose other five members included Poulenc, Honegger, Auric, Tailleferre (the only woman), and Durey. Early on in his career Milhaud (pronounced "mee-yo") flirted with the avant garde, but rather quickly settled into a more approachable style, one not without its own eccentricities, however.
His music is generally busy, often playful and nonchalant, and almost always colorful. It contains hints of Stravinsky, and much of the writing is in the upper and lower registers, often simultaneously, giving the sound at times a distinct quality. Neoclassical and often lean, his music wasn't as delicate in its scoring as Stravinsky's later works, and Milhaud, very much aware of all the artistic fashions of the day, remained content to go his own, ultimately conservative way. It should be noted that, while these are billed as the "complete" symphonies of the composer, there was a choral Thirteenth Symphony, Pacem in terris, based on texts by Pope John XXIII.
Symphony #1 (1939), with its opus 210 listing and coming when the composer was forty-seven years old, can hardly be called an early work. It is one of the better symphonies here, light and colorful, assured in orchestration, and tuneful and rhythmically appealing throughout. It hardly sounds like the work of a man in recovery from a lengthy illness, fearful over the outbreak of war. The Fourth, with which it is coupled, is a less interesting work. Written to commemorate the Revolution of 1848, it is somewhat bombastic and less thematically appealing.
The Second and Third Symphonies are both worthwhile creations, the former not too different in mood from the First, the latter a more serious composition and featuring a rather ethereal religiosity in its choral second movement and finale. The Fifth Symphony (1953), the longest of the twelve here, clocking in at 32:24, may be among his best efforts in the genre. It is Stravinskyan in the first movement, but his scoring is quite powerful, seeming to switch from a subtle understated character to an engaging boisterousness. The ensuing movement also divulges Stravinsky's influence, but the music again shows the composer's deft skills in this winsome and slightly wistful slow movement.
If the Fifth is too colorful and boisterous for some, then the Sixth (1955) might serve as the perfect antidote. Its first movement is mesmerizing in its tranquility and dreaminess, attractive in its thematic lushness. But the mischievous Milhaud then follows it with a movement bearing the description "tumultuous", and tumultuous it is, bringing the spirit of the Fifth back. The other two movements ("slow and soft" and "joyous and robust") complete a sort of mood-swing tour that is most engaging.
The Seventh seems, in many ways, a summation of what has preceded it in the composer's symphonic oeuvre. Here, one finds color, rowdiness, energy, a Stravinskyan crispness, but now all with a greater compactness of expression. The last two discs, in fact, contain three symphonies each, whereas the first three held but two apiece and were on average nearly as long. (The disc containing the Fifth and Sixth, at 62:59, is actually the longest in the set.) The middle movement of the Seventh, slow and somber, but full of color, with even hints of Charles Ives, is the centerpiece to this compelling twenty-minute symphony.
The Eighth Symphony, subtitled the "Rhone River", certainly offers the most mysterious and atmospheric opening, and throughout maintains that eeriness, enlivened by a tart brashness, making the music peculiarly dark, for Milhaud, and without his generally upbeat demeanor. Things brighten later on, especially in the finale, but the work overall is quite austere. Still, it's among the better entries here. The Ninth stays on the same small scale as its disc mates, making no attempt at recognizing the significance the number "9" has in some traditions. It is colorful and rambunctious in the first movement, dark and ominous in the second, and vivacious in the finale.
The last three symphonies here came in the years 1960-61, and, though their temperaments differ, they have much in common. All have that characteristic Milhaud lightness and playfulness, that jollity and occasional raucousness. The Tenth deals in varying moods, with the dark second movement its most effective in terms of expressive depth. The Eleventh, subtitled "The Romantic", is a little more subdued. The opening theme, lively and nervous, is one of the composer's more engaging creations, and the second movement is ponderous and at times more than vaguely reminiscent of Copland. The finale is a typical Milhaud romp. The Twelfth Symphony is the shortest, lasting just under sixteen minutes. It is light and colorful and makes little attempt at anything serious.
The performances are generally quite good. Conductor Alun Francis, known for offbeat repertory, such the symphonies of Allan Pettersson, and works by Casella, Cowell, and Searle, captures the Milhaud idiom to near perfection. The Basel players are in fine form throughout, and if their strings come across as a tad scrawny, their overall sound and skills are impressive. It's hard to single out one or two particular performances from among the set, since all are quite good. The sound and notes that CPO offers are both excellent.
The question many will ask with regard to this multi-disc set is, how good are the symphonies of Milhaud? My answer may involve a bit of hedging: his work is better than you might think, even if no one composition here is likely to go down as a first-rate classic. All are far above mediocre, and most deserve greater attention. In time, at least a few should move near to repertory status.
Copyright © 2000, Robert Cummings