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CD Review

Darius Milhaud

The Oresteia of Aeschylus
(L'Orestie d'Eschyle)

L'Agamemnon
Les Choéphores
Les Eumenénides
  • Dan Kempson, baritone (Orestes)
  • Lori Phillips, soprano (Clytemnestra)
  • Julianna Di Giacomo, soprano (Pythia)
  • Brenda Rae, soprano (Athena, A Slave Woman)
  • Kristin Eder, mezzo-soprano (Electra)
  • Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano (Athena)
  • Jennifer Lane, contralto (Athena)
  • Sidney Outlaw, baritone (Apollo)
  • Sophie Delphis, speaker (Leader of the Slave Women)
Choirs of the University Musical Society
University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble
University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Kiesler
North American Premiere, recorded live
Ann Arbor, Michigan, Hill Auditorium, 4 April 2013
Naxos Opera 8.660349-51 3CDs 2:21:24
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Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) can be a hard composer to categorize. Neither particularly adventurous or experimental nor yet backward-looking, Milhaud was a member of Les Six, the group in turn of the century Paris which looked outside the then established musical sources for both inspiration and technique. L'Orestie d'Eschyle (Aeschylus' "Oresteia") was typical of this search for the new and exciting which prevailed then. Written in the decade between 1913 and 1923, which saw Stravinsky's ballets, the First World War, and the massive social changes which followed it, it's a remarkable trilogy (especially when you remember that Milhaud was in his 20's when he composed it) which aims to be much more than a musical setting of Greek tragedy.

Milhaud was fascinated throughout his life and career by Greek mythology and the world of the Greek dramatists. He knew the latter chiefly through the rhythmic translations of Paul Claudel, which emphasize the declamatory, rhetorical and exposed nature of the drama, which may also have been sung – or at least intoned. There's an insistence, a violence, almost, to much of Milhaud's music here, which of course fits the subject.

The rhythms – especially of the works' climax, Act III of the Eumenénides [CD.3], are redolent of the driving syncopation of some of the more extrovert output of Villa-Lobos. In fact Milhaud and Claudel visited Brazil in 1917; there the French composer became fascinated with the same folk-rhythms as influenced Villa-Lobos. Repeated listening to the music of this trilogy will reveal just how subtle and nuanced this sense of both forward movement and reflection through rhythm is; and how suitable rhythm is as modern musical attention is given to Greek drama.

At the same time, Milhaud does not rely on stock declamation to convey either the drama or the heightened emotion as the work reaches its climax. The polytonality which Milhaud uses support a wholeness and access to delicacy that both offset the caustic nature of the drama; and even confer a sweetness on the characters' delivery of their stories.

What's more, Milhaud makes the text and his adaptation of it to well over two hours of colorful and impactful opera his own. One thinks of Stravinsky and other neo-Classical composers fascinated by the apparent and/or perceived stability and timelessness of the Greeks. Milhaud is a long way from them. Less impersonal, more insightful of character; more interested in character, in fact. At the same time, Milhaud handles the exposition necessary to inform the audience and explain what has happened with a lightness of touch that – strangely in keeping with the tenor of entire trilogy – moves things forward at a striking pace.

L'Orestie d'Eschyle, of course, uses the tragedies of Aeschylus in the French poetic translation by Claudel. What can rightly be seen as an ambitious work, and one which makes just the right compromise between length and depth, began as a setting (in 1913) of a single scene of the first play, the Agamemnon. Three years later came the through-composed Les Choéphores ("The Libation Bearers"), with an orchestra augmented by no fewer than 15 percussionists. In 1923 Les Euménides ("The Kindly Ones") seemed to build on the momentum established by the first two pieces: its three acts last over twice as long as the first two works combined, and occupy two of these three CDs. The orchestra is bigger still and also requires quartets of saxophones and saxhorns.

The sense of dramatic climax is amply evoked by this production. The percussionists, brass and multi-layered choruses first became familiar with, then develop tightly and impressively, the dramatic potency of both Claudel and Aeschylus. At the same time conductor Kiesler takes nothing away from the integrity of the musical (and poetic) vision of Milhaud himself. This was, and remains, Milhaud's work – sufficient transformation and "re-scoping" of the Greek original did he infuse into the original idea, making it a truly twentieth century and Parisian work.

Yet there is nothing in this three-part piece which is superfluous to a story as it would be told, had it in fact first been conceived and set in the early twentieth century. The melodic and harmonic delivery of the singers, chorus and soloists alike is full of dignity and gravitas. Though the performance style is intentionally not so detached as if the entire work had been Milhaud's own original conception. This is in contrast with some of the failings of, say, Walton's similarly epic Troilus and Cressida from a couple of decades later. Indeed, Milhaud writes here in a vein closer to Britten's The Rape of Lucretia; the story is grand but the characters real.

This approachability is one of this cast's great strengths. Notable for their understanding of the role as well as technical prowess are Lori Phillips' (soprano) Clytemnestra and Kristin Eder's (contralto) Electra; as well as the two choruses from the University of Michigan. Kiesler's control of the entire production is close and sympathetic – particularly to the relationship which the performers must have had to build with Milhaud's distinctive idiom. At the same time, it's necessary for audiences to appreciate the intensity of the psychology and tragedy of events in the Oresteia. This production and recording achieve this splendidly.

The circumstances of this recording are almost as remarkable as the work itself. As Kiesler explains in his booklet note, William Bolcom, who studied with Milhaud, effectively prompted the music department of the University of Michigan in April 2013 to assemble over 350 performers (actually professionals, students and amateurs) to stage a concert performance. These CDs are taken from that extraordinary event. But the music, the standard of singing and playing, and the fact that we now have what is surely the first complete recording of this work by Milhaud make the set one to seek out and get to know. It's much more than a curiosity. It's a huge success.

The acoustic of these three CDs is excellent too: responsive, resonant yet not one that interferes with the absorbing sung text or rich instrumentation. This enhances the impact which the work (certainly now the only recording available) makes. The booklet contains much information but not the libretto, which is available in French with English translation on the Naxos site. Milhaud's L'Orestie is much more than an offshoot from an otherwise intriguing composer anyway. It's one of his major works, performed well and persuasively by singers and players well up to the task. This set ought to allow us (partially) to reappraise Milhaud.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey

Trumpet