American Record Guide

Darius Milhaud did most of his creative work in the 1920s and 30s; he enjoyed a modicum of fame in the 1940s and 50s when modernist works were ubiquitous on concert programs in Europe and America. He was a sort of Gallic Hindemith, vastly prolific in genres large and small, given to rhythmic complexity and mixtures of sweet and sour tonality pleasing to the modernist palate. Where Hindemith might look to history for inspiration, Milhaud favored cultural eclecticism. The jazz and Latin rhythms that were so avant-garde in the 1920s now seem utterly charming. While he left no great work to perpetuate his memory, Milhaud was a skilful and pleasing composer well worth recovering on record.

Milhaud’s oeuvre was once very well represented on records, though most had a fleeting life in the catalogs. While his own performances are reissued from time to time, much has languished in the archives for half a century and more. This collection of less familiar works is welcome.

The Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano is a disarmingly simple neoclassical confection enlivened by spicy French tonalities delivered here with pleasing grace; the recording derives from an old Period LP. The Little Chamber Symphony was issued as part of a multi-volume history of music project issued on Columbia 78’s: “little” is the operative word, since its three movements take about a minute each. The Serenade for Orchestra, Etudes for Piano and Orchestra, Maximilian Suite, and Rag Caprices all derive from an early Westminster LP. If there is nothing particularly memorable here, there is much that is enjoyable. One wishes that Westminster had hired French musicians rather than a Viennese recording ensemble, but Swoboda and company sound well-rehearsed and very competent.

But the compelling reason to purchase the disc is the Protée Suite performed by the San Francisco Symphony and Pierre Monteux. It is an early work (1919), and Milhaud was still assimilating Debussy and Stravinsky. It is unusual to hear him working with a large orchestra and striving for sublimity rather than wit – and unusual too to hear his music performed by a major conductor. If the results are not equal to La Mer or The Rite of Spring, it is not for want of striving on the part of composer or conductor. The Suite is Picasso-esque in its randy celebration of pagan sexuality, full of throbbing ostinatos, braying horns, and shrilling fifes. The theme of mutability was congenial to Milhaud, who must have regarded himself as a sort of musical Proteus.

Monteux is an ideal interpreter; one can only wish that he had waited a little longer to record a work that requires more dynamic range than could be managed in 1945. While it made a brief appearance in LP, this is one of the scarcest of Monteux’s recordings, despite the conductor’s important association with Paris modernism. One enjoys Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, but for sheer Bacchic mayhem, the Protée Suite is unsurpassed.

Divine Art is to be commended for their selection of works and the care taken with their restoration. Vast numbers of obscure modernist works were recorded in the 1940s and 50s, and while the performers are seldom familiar names today, many could be made up into attractive retrospectives like this one devoted to Milhaud.