Milhaud’s Early and Late String Sonatas Surprise

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MILHAUD: Viollin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Printemps. Capriccio No. 13 de Paganini. 4 Visages for Viola & Piano. Viola Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 / Gran Duo Italiano: Mauro Tortorelli, violinist/violist; Angela Meluso, pianist / Brilliant Classics 95232

The liner notes of this release begin with a startling claim by annotator Francesco Maschio:

Darius Milhaud is not exactly in the limelight right now. If Web visibility is what establishes the degree of popularity of an artist, just as it is of a brand, then there is no avoiding the fact that the French composer is gradually slipping towards oblivion.

As things stand right now, there are entries in the illustrious IRCAM catalogue for practically all contemporary composers and those of the twentieth century except Darius Milhaud, who is not honoured with even the briefest biographical note.

His presence in the digital universe is limited to various versions of Wikipadia, and a blog established by the association “Le amis de Darius Milhaud,” whose concept of friendship has not urged them to update the information provided relating to “the French musician of Jewish religion from Provence,” as Milhaud liked to describe himself…

If this is true it is certainly criminal. Milhaud, originally part of the group of French composers referred to as “Les Six” but then branching out beyond them, was surely one of the most prolific and creative minds in music during the 20th century. Granted, except for his jazz-inspired orchestral piece Le Creation du Monde and the South American-inspired Le Boeuf sur la Toit he was not terribly well known to American or British concertgoers even during his lifetime, but just the sheer presence of those two works were enough to keep his name alive and in fact led to his teaching music in California during the 1940s, where he had the unique distinction of fostering a whole group of young jazz musicians who wanted to learn the underlying principles of modern classical form to apply to their jazz. Pianist Dave Brubeck was his most famous pupil, but there were also Dave van Kreidt, Bob and Dick Collins, Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader. And in recent years his immense operatic masterpiece L’Orestie d’Eschyle has been revived with great interest.

This collection is essentially split 50/50 between his works for violin and those for viola, but stylistically between his earliest days as a composer (Opp. 3 through 40) and his later self (Opp. 238-244), and it is interesting to note that the violin works occupy the early material while the viola takes center stage in the later. Indeed, the Op. 3 Violin Sonata sounds so much like something that Gabriel Fauré or Camille Saint-Saens might have done that in a blindfold test the name of Milhaud would probably be one of the last one would guess. It is played beautifully, but to be honest, as the sonata progresses it becomes less interesting musically, with the last movement sounding particularly derivative and even leaden in rhythm. There are flashes here and there (particularly in the first movement) of the Milhaud to come, but not enough to recommend this music as interesting or inspiring. The same may also be said for Printemps and the Capriccio No. 13 de Paganini, but in the Violin Sonata No. 2 we already hear the mature Milhaud coming through, with his unique harmonic sense and form overcoming the occasional lapses into late Romanticism. One aspect of this music I found particularly interesting in the first movement were sequences of almost bitonal violin chords, sounding for all the world like something Joe Venuti would do in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.

Interestingly, despite its early opus number and its obvious homage to Paganini, the Capriccio is surprisingly original and contains several ideas—particularly in the rhythm—that were to surface in his mature music. This is immediately signaled by the 4 Visages for Viola and Piano, Op. 238. Probably because he was writing for a string instrument, the music here is still strongly lyrical, using long lines and recognizably tonal melodic structure, but there are constant indications and signposts of the mature Milhaud in the constant harmonic shifts within each piece. Mauro Tortorelli, whose violin playing was very bright, almost a bit metallic in tone quality, displays a surprisingly dark viola tone. This works particularly well in the Viola Sonata No. 1, harmonically more conventional for later Milhaud but very mature in the way he kept his musical ideas shifting and evolving. It’s the kind of work that grabs your attention and holds it in spite of its bias towards conventional tonality.

The first movement of the Viola Sonata No. 2 begins with a rhythm that almost sounds like an Irish jig, but as soon as the viola enters the harmonies become ambiguous and the entire mood shifts. It’s not a great work, but it is an interesting one, though I felt that the first movement went on about a half-minute too long. The second movement, however, is one of his greatest creations, a deeply-felt piece—titled “Dramatique”—played with great feeling by both Tortorelli and Meluso. This is quite a departure for the normally “cool” Milhaud, who disliked music that wore its heart on its sleeve. At the 3:20 mark, the viola plays an unusual passage on the edge of the strings, creating a slightly edgy mood. And the third movement dispenses with strict tonality, plunging the listener into a bitonal, rather edgy mood as if racing towards a sort of emotional precipice.

All in all, then, this is an interesting if artistically uneven view of Milhaud’s work for solo strings. It is, however, recommended for the specific works I praised above as well as for the excellent playing of Gran Duo Italiano.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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