Rediscovering Milhaud’s Symphonies

cover CPO 999 656-2

MILHAUD: Symphonies Nos. 1-12 / Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel; Chor des Theaters Basel (in #3); Alun Francis, cond / CPO 999 656-2

In the classical world, everything old is new again—particularly if it predates 1910. Monteverdi, Purcell, Telemann, Buxtehude, the Bach Boys, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Berlioz, Mahler…these are the wheels that the classical world runs on. But talk up a 20th century composer whose name was not Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev or Bartók, and you have problems. No one wants to hear them.

This was exactly the situation that drove Welsh conductor Alun Francis to convince CPO to let him start recording some of the prolific output of Darius Milhaud back in the 1990s. He completed his symphony project (at least the 12 numbered symphonies…a bit later, Milhaud wrote a 13th symphony but it was really a religious cantata) by the end of the decade, following this up with the piano concerti and other concerted pieces for piano and orchestra with Michael Korstick in the early 2000s. This boxed set was released in 2000, with no promotion and little acclaim from critics who, after all, are much more interested in Telemann, Buxtehude, the Bach Boys, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc. etc. etc.

But what a treasure trove this is! Milhaud started writing his symphonies in 1939, the year that World War II started in earnest but a year before the Nazis took over France, and ended in the early 1960s. It seems almost incredible that he was able to emotionally divorce himself from the awful events surrounding him at the time and turn out a first symphony that alternates between dreamy, pastoral themes and energetic, enthusiastic music while Shostakovich was already in “war mode” with his fifth symphony.

Milhaud’s harmonic language was edgy and remained so; he was as much influenced by Stravinsky (and possibly Bartók) as he was by Debussy and Ravel, if not more so, but then again, so was Arthur Honegger and his music is similarly ignored in the concert halls today.

Francis, who was born in 1943, began his conducting career quite modestly, spending a decade directing the Ulster Orchestra beginning in 1966. A dozen years later, he conducted the premiere of Donizetti’s trashy opera Gabriella di Vergy before moving on in 1979 to the Northwest Chamber Orchestra in Seattle, Washington. From 1987-1990 he led the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, then his career picked up some steam, directing the Berlin Symphony and Milan Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra; beginning in 2003, he led the Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha for five years. Yet somehow, he slipped away from the Germans and, in 2010, accepted a position with the Orquesta Filharmonica de la UNAM in Mexico City.

So exactly how he ended up recording all of this Milhaud with a Swiss orchestra, I don’t really know, but here the set is and it’s a stunner. No matter how well you think you know Milhaud’s music, you really don’t know it until you’ve heard all of these symphonies, most of which have not been recorded since these versions and many of which have not been previously recorded in digital sound.

The first two symphonies, in fact, are more pastoral and quiet than normal for Milhaud, whose music generally bustled with excitement. To be honest, I didn’t much care for these. It is only with the Third Symphony of 1946, a “Te Deum” that includes a chorus, that we hear the “real” Milhaud style with its complex polyrhythms and almost consistently edgy harmonies. This is where, I believe, the Milhaud symphonies really begin. Interestingly, the soloists in the last movement, all of them excellent, are apparently members of the chorus since none of them are individually identified.

The fourth symphony, written to commemorate the French revolution of 1848, vacillates between militaristic music and bucolic pleasantries. This little internal battle between whimsical, elegant music and strong, powerful movements would then become a pattern for many of his symphonies going forward. Indeed, the fifth symphony opens with a fast, quirky bitonal theme that almost seems like material for a chamber symphony rather than for a full-orchestra version.

By this point I had come to realize why Milhaud’s symphonies are not often performed, and ironically it has nothing to do with the modern harmony. Rather, most of this music sounds small-scaled, as if these were chamber symphonies. So many of the movements are lightweight and airy, almost sounding as if they were tossed off without any real emotional or intellectual involvement by the composer. This is a far cry from the much more passionate symphonies of Mahler, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Robert Simpson or even Henri Dutilleux, to name a few of the more recognized 20th-century composers in this form. Does this make them poor or inferior music? Not at all, and even within several of these symphonies I really enjoyed certain movements, such as the lively finale of the Fifth in which Milhaud wittily supports a high flute melody with pounding tympani underneath. Yet by contrast with his piano concerti, which certainly do sound like conventional works on that scale, there’s just a bit more insouciance in the way Milhaud tosses off his themes and variations as if they were cotton candy being spun at a carnival.

Also, unlike the other composers named in the above paragraph, Milhaud’s symphonies sometimes sound odd when heard in sequence. The first, for instance, was written while he was in a state of depression and the second is essentially a “funeral symphony” to mark the passing of Madame Koussevitzky. When heard in sequence, they give the impression of sadness and drab feelings, certainly not the sort of thing one wishes to hear in a symphony. But perhaps because he was such an ingenious and facile composer, Milhaud was very much a creature of the moment. However he was feeling about the subject at hand at that moment, that’s the way the music came out.

As it turns out, the Sixth Symphony was also a commission from the Boston Symphony, this time when Charles Munch was its music director, to mark the 75th anniversary of the orchestra in 1955, and this time Milhaud wrote a harmonically strange but rhythmically festive work full of color and simply bursting with ideas. An aside: I find it just a bit ludicrous that Milhaud, along with many other 20th and 21st-century composers, sit around waiting for “commissions” in order to write symphonies. If Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz or Mahler did that, they’d have starved to death and not have produced the marvelous symphonies that they did. I believe in composers who write from an inner urge or need, not someone who cranks out product on “commission.” Just get over yourselves. You’re not all that special that someone has to cough up a wad of dough for you to write a symphony. Just do it.

But to return to the Sixth Symphony, it is clearly one of his finest, in fact the best of the entire series to this point. Even the slow second and third movements are wonderful; Milhaud came up with really lovely themes that were not mawkish or insipid, but rather something worthy of a Mahler, and his development of them as well as their imaginative (but typical) orchestration are really wondrous.

The Seventh Symphony, dating from 1955, also opens with a rather jolly, bucolic first movement, while the second is not only slow but rather gloomy, with the menacing undercurrent of tympani and occasional biting interjections from the trumpets. The third movement returns to jollity, however, and that is where it ends. The Eighth, from 1957, opens with one of his eeriest movements: the fast motor rhythms indicate something peppy and jolly, but the harsh chords and metallic-sounding orchestration indicate menace. At the 3:50 mark, one hears a grumbling sort of fast counter-melody played by the basses against high winds and strings. A very odd piece! Then, without pause, the slow second movement begins with a fairly serene solo violin, which then leads to a mixture of strings and high winds to continue the thematic development.

After this symphony, to be honest, I just stopped listening because I couldn’t take any more. Milhaud’s Piano Concerti are wonderful, but as a whole his symphonies are just too quirky, too cerebral and too lacking in humanity or real emotion to appeal to me. Your reaction may be entirely different, however, and if you like them, more power to you. If so, this is clearly the set to acquire. But as for me, I’ll be quite content if I never hear any of them again in my lifetime.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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