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Milhaud the Symphonist,
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This review is from: Milhaud : Symphonies Nos 4 & 8 & Piano Concerto No.4 - Apex (Audio CD)
If your knowledge and enjoyment of Milhaud extends only to his earlier works such as "Le Creation du Monde" or "Le Beouf sur le Toit" this disc might seem rather challenging. If you're looking for state of the art recorded then the symphonies fall well short. Having said that, Milhaud conducts them with great spirit and energy for a man in his late seventies.
The musical language of his symphonies is, for the most part, dominated by a complex polytonality that has less immediate appeal than in "Le Beouf.." because there is little use of popular tunes making it easy to follow. That said, both symphonies here have a programme, which helps. The Fourth commemorates centenary of the French revolution of 1848. The outer movements are full of spirited percussion and marching music. The polytonal language may seem quite gnarly but the spirit of the piece shines through.
The Eighth was inspired by Smetana's "Die Moldau" and celebrates the river journey of the Rhone from the Alps to the Mediterranean. Don't expect too much impressionist tone painting though: apart from a depiction of Lake Geneva in the slow movement the music is rather busy throughout.
The Fourth Piano Concerto, though coming from the same period in Milhaud's life, is more approachable. Having a soloist possibly makes it easier for the listener to pick their way through the complex harmonies. It is, overall, a warm and gregarious virtuoso concerto. The short "Ballade" for piano and orchestra comes from earlier in Milhaud's career and like "Le Beouf.." recalls his love of Brazil in a more impressionistic and approachable musical language.
The two piano works were recorded more recently and benefit from good recorded sound. The symphonies were recorded on the Erato label by Milhaud in the late 1960's and I suspect they would sound easier to follow with more modern sound. The problem here is that the sound is a little treble biased and miked a bit too far from the instruments giving you more distance and less sense of space and instrument placement than you'd expect from a more modern recording. This makes it rather more difficult to follow the complex of simultaneous individual lines of music that were integral to Milhaud's music. Even so, with spirited performances of generally upbeat and classically proportioned music there is still plenty to enjoy. There is plenty of substance to the symphonies and I suspect the competition from the CPO label, who have recorded the full set in more recent years, might be a better option to explore if the symphonies are your main interest.