Although the works on this CD may not figure among the "greatest" Milhaud, this is a mostly very relaxing "easy listening" program. I don't know if this represents the composer's complete wind music, but even if it does, the timing of the disc is short--less than 42 minutes. However, that's offset by the bargain reissue price. Also this seems to be the only currently available recording of several of the works here.
"La Cheminée du roi René" is a suite of pieces based on the film music for "Cavalcade d'Amour." According to the notes, the "Chimney" of the title refers to a favorite recreational area of René d'Anjou, "a natural shelter and suntrap" near his court at Aix-en-Provence. The seven movements depict typical amusements of a medieval court: hunting, jousting, music, jugglers. Milhaud adopts an enchanting quasi-medieval style, spiced with modalism and gentle polytonality, alternating lively and lyrical movements. At times, the hunting piece, "Chasse à la Valabre," suggests an isorhythmic motet in triple meter, with occasional duple hemiolas that suggest the riders urging the horses on with their crops. The "Madrigal-Nocturne" ends the day in a poetic mood as the court contentedly departs, the sunset illuminating the scene with slanting rays of deep orange-pink and blue. I first heard this piquant yet amiable piece in my (distant) teens, in the performance by the New York Woodwind Quintet, and I've had a warm spot in my heart for it ever since. The Athena Ensemble's agile performance does not suffer by the comparison.
The "Suite d'après Corrette" derives from incidental music for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Milhaud's choice of baroque composer Michel Corrette as source material is, of course, anachronistic. However, such quibbling is disarmed by the genial score itself. Milhaud treats Corrette's material with elegance, sensitivity, and complete freedom. The original melodies are treated as a springboard for complete reworkings, not "arrangements" or facile pastiche.
Despite its title, the "Divertissement," based on music for Resnais' film, "Gaugin," is much the toughest work here. The first two movements move from a conflict of 4/4 and 3/4, through an uneasy peace and an angry quarrel. This leads to unexpected agreement in the finale--in dancing 6/8 which reconciles the conflict between duple and triple meter. Although the music is not atonal, it is quite dissonant until the good-humored finale.
The "Pastorale" and the "Two Sketches" are both lighter stuff--what Satie might have called "furniture music." Satie used this phrase to describe much of his own music, and it is not meant perjoratively. It merely means music with which one can feel comfortable--one doesn't have to invest a great deal of concentration in order to enjoy it.
Most of this CD represents Milhaud at his most ingratiating. Recommended to lovers of "Les Six," Satie, etc.--delightful lightweight stuff, played with wit and sensitivity by the Athena Ensemble.