Milhaud: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (CD review)

Alun Francis, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel. CPO 999 539-2.

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.

Alun Francis
In the next twenty years, Milhaud would go on to write a dozen more symphonies. The Fourth Symphony, Op. 281 is decidedly programmatic, the composer having been commissioned by the French Minister of Education to write a piece based on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Revolution of 1848. Each movement represents a phase in the Revolution, bringing contrasting styles and tempi to a sound picture of vivid contrasts.

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:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa