Michael Korstick’s Milhaud Set

cover 777162-2

MILHAUD: Le Carnaval d’Aix. Ballade. Cinq Études, Op. 63. Fantasie Pastorale. Piano Concerti Nos. 1-5 / Michael Korstick, pno; SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserlautern; Alun Francis, cond / CPO 777 162-2

This set came out while I was writing reviews for a major classical magazine, in 2007, but of course I was not offered a chance to review it and I didn’t even know it had come out. It is, I am told, one of his best-selling recordings, and small wonder: the music is wonderful, and his playing scintillating as well as precise.

Of course, Milhaud’s music is still not entirely mainstream except for a few select pieces, such as La Creation du Monde and Le Boeuf sur la Toit, and small wonder. It is resolutely modern, more like Stravinsky than like most of his French contemporaries like Koechlin (which Korstick has also recorded) and thus, to some ears, abrasive; but since I’m a huge fan of the composer, I simply had to hear and review it.

Part of the album’s appeal is clearly due to the excellent conducting of Alun Francis, a name with which I am unfamiliar. He has the style exactly right, a combination of Stravinsky-like motor rhythms and French elegance, and Korstick’s playing is simply wonderful. Considering how rarely these works are recorded, it doesn’t surprise me that it remains a top choice among Milhaud aficionados.

In order to fill out the first CD, on which only the first concerto appears, several other pieces were chosen, and each of them has its own unique sound and profile. In the slow movement of Le Carnaval d’Aix, one hears Korstick play in a style not far removed from his Debussy recordings, which are equally excellent, but in every movement of each piece he clearly captures the right feel for the music and reveals his usual fastidious technique, articulation and phrasing.

Other critics found the smaller pieces, after Le Carnaval d’Aix, to be rather inconsequential music, but personally I found most of them interesting and, in their own bitonal or atonal way, delightful to hear, the one exception being the rather dull Fantasie Pastorale. Much of this stems from the exciting, idiomatic conducting of Francis, but Korstick’s contribution cannot be overlooked. Whether he himself was as committed to the music as the conductor or not, one cannot deny the energy and sparkle of his playing in these oft-difficult works. The last of the five etudes, Tres animé, is but one example of what I mean.

I also particularly liked the odd second-movement “Barcarolle” of the First Concerto, played whimsically by the SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserlautern and Korstick. If anything, the second through the fifth concerti are even better music than the first, the opening of the second concerto in particular sounding like a hyper version of his contemporary Poulenc, only with a few more spiky harmonies which is probably the reason it’s not played that often in concert. One critic opined that the short duration of these concerti, each one running between 13 and 21 minutes, was one reason they are not often programmed, but I think it’s just the fact that Milhaud’s Stravinsky-like musical profile—but without the clout of Stravinsky’s name—is another reason. Never over-estimate the ability of the musical public to absorb new music that doesn’t suit their tastes. Korstick is lyrical and haunting in the second movement of this second concerto, and in the difficult third movement he catches the odd syncopations just right.

The lilting waltz theme that opens the third concerto is also a bit reminiscent of Poulenc, and here again both pianist and conductor catch the mood perfectly. The third movement is rather busier and more syncopated than Poulenc (Milhaud became fond of jazz in the 1940s while he was teaching in California; several of his pupils became members of the Dave Brubeck Octet), and while one cannot call Korstick a jazzy pianist he acquitted himself well.

Undoubtedly one of the most unusual movements in any of these concerti is the second movement (“Très lent”) of the fourth. With its stomping, measured rhythm and unusual dissonances, the opening orchestral passage has the effect of a giant stomping around. Indeed, so arresting is the orchestral part that, in this movement, the piano seems like a commentator, though it does assert itself here and here. The music continues to grind away even during the development section; at 10:28, this is one of the longest (and most involved) movements on either CD. The last movement of this concerto comes close to capturing some of the jazz feel of the Ravel Concerto in G. The piano soloist plays an odd, serrated melodic line the climbs up the keyboard in intervals of major and minor thirds in the right hand.

Yet it is the fifth concerto that is the most compositionally advanced. Premiered at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City in June 1956, it sounds just a bit trickier than those preceding and is certainly an odd combination, in the first movement, of sharp, fragmented figures and yet good musical construction. The second movement opens with the solo piano, ruminating in a somewhat lyrical mode but with out-of-tonality interjections, followed in turn by a lovely melody played by the flutes, later joined by other winds. In the last movement, “Joyeux,” Milhaud uses a rather jolly syncopated tune in irregular meter for the musicians to play with.

All in all, a lively and enjoyable set, recommended for Milhaud fanciers as well as those who enjoy modern French music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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