The French composer and conductor Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) wrote his Symphony No. 1, Op. 210 in 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War. He was nearly fifty years old at the time and had never written a complete symphony before. While he did not give the symphony a set program, the listener can infer freely from its varied material a possible scenario. The opening movement is light, pastoral, free, and easygoing. It calls to mind the lull before the storm, the peace before the War. The second movement opens boisterously, perhaps representing the War itself. The third movement is slow and serious but with little sense of danger; maybe wishful thinking. Then the finale brings us back to the martial music of the second movement and returns to a relaxed conclusion, possibly Milhaud anticipating a speedy resolution and end to hostilities. Or not. Certainly, he couldn't have anticipated the horrors to come.
Both symphonies are pleasing to the ear, much different from the composer's earlier, more experimental works. Maestro Alun Francis and the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra bring both joy and despair to the pieces as they require and generally sets up a stately presence throughout. Neither work is particularly striking, yet Francis does a pretty good job bringing out their more imaginative and pictorial qualities. The orchestra likewise sounds good, although the sound it produces appears a tad undernourished compared to, say, the Berlin Philharmonic or Concertgebouw orchestras. Nevertheless, the ensemble displays a fine athleticism and flies through the musical scores with a fair degree of poise.
Miked at a moderate distance, the CPO album, recorded in 1995 and released in 1998, offers the listener a reasonably accurate facsimile of a real symphony orchestra. There is a realistic hall ambiance, a good stage depth, a modest frequency and dynamic range, and as much orchestral detail as we might expect from perhaps a fifteenth row seat or thereabouts. It is a not a recording to wow an audiophile or knock the socks off a neophyte; it just sounds like a large ensemble of players performing in your living room. I say good enough.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: