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Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) Chamber Music 1917-1966 Polytonality and the Infinity Series

Ensemble Polytonaal
Channel Classics CCS 13998 [73 mins]

Per Norgard
(b.1932) Sea Drift and Chamber Music
Koch Schwann 3-6765-2 [75'36"]
Reviewed by Peter Grahame Woolf in Classical London #65 Oct 2001

The Dutch group Ensemble Polytonaal was formed for Milhaud's centenary in
1992, when these newly released performances were recorded. Their name
epitomises Darius Milhaud's espousal of polytonality as a way to escape the
impasse which confronted composers who saw the need for change yet were
uncomfortable with atonality. He was influenced by Debussy and admired
Satie, abhorring the influence of Wagner in France. In Brazil he added South
American folk elements to the brew, and jazz elements also contribute to Milhaud's
characteristic and easily recognisable musical language, which stood him
in good stead for decades of happy productivity; the latest work collected
here is Op. 417, a piano quartet of 1966.

This is a fair selection, with several of the works here making good musical
accompaniment to a meal, an admission which the composer would perhaps not
deplore. The well-known Suite for violin, clarinet & piano (1936), based
on a film score, is typically cheerful and unpretentious music. Of two
string sonatas, I liked better the 2nd for Violin of 1917; in the 2nd for Viola
(1944) that less assertive instrument is a little overwhelmed at times by
the piano - but I prefer imbalance to be in that direction. Of two piano
quartets, that of 1966 is by turns lyrical and explosively rumbustious, and
the early Sonata with flute, oboe and clarinet (1918) is particularly
engaging. It explores moods from tranquil to joyous, and funereal to cacophonous
(Milhaud premieres often led to violent disorder in those far away times when
audiences were unafraid to express strong feelings). This was my favourite of a
well-varied programme, which is, however, probably best heard not straight through. This
belated release is satisfactorily recorded in the main and should assist
revaluation of a dauntingly comprehensive oeuvre of music in every
imaginable genre by a composer who enjoyed his life in music and has given a lot of

Per Norgard
forged a complex musical language based on his invention of an
'infinity series' which has proved serviceable for creating music which is
for listeners who know nothing of Fibonacci sequences and fractals (see also
my review of one of his operas at
http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2000/nov00/norgard.htm ). His first
mentor was Vagn Holmboe and he himself has taught many of the most
distinguished Danish composers of today. This CD repays closest attention.
The flute figures prominently, with an early student Suite Op 5 easy to
and reflecting Holmboe's polyphonic predilections with baroque and folk
influences. Mating Dance for flute and guitar (1977) has a male (courting)
flute dancing around an (at first) indifferent female (guitar). Tjampuan (1992) is an important contribution to the limited violin and cello repertoire, with the infinite
tone row 'poured into interwoven groups of fifths'. Spell for clarinet,
cello and piano trio (1973) holds the attention effortlessly with its magically
flowing modified repetitions, distantly related to Reich's 'phase music',
but far more interesting and evocative; unique and a real gem.

Sea Drift (1978, 22 mins) is a setting of Walt Whitman - his Leaves of Grass
a rich quarry for Delius, Hindemith and others. I bought the complete
collection of poems as a student after becoming captivated by the Delius as interpreted
by Beecham, and that large scale choral and orchestral lament is imprinted
on my impressionable youthful memory indelibly. Norgard takes the central
image of a pair of sea birds, one inconsolable after its partner fails to
return, and makes it an impassioned, anguished cry of protest for every
human loss. Norma Enns deals valiantly and really very successfully with
impossible demands upon a high, dramatic soprano voice, but no-one could articulate
some of the (fragmented) phrases Norgard sets as he compels her at times
to scream in a way that is appropriate to the context, but likely to
alienate some listeners. She is supported by all the instruments mentioned above
(plus percussion), piccolo having the last despairing word. It is unforgettable
and I love it. Overall this is well judged, intelligent programming, but
I think there is a lot to be said for approaching these very different works
in reverse order, finishing with the almost intolerable intensity of Sea

Well played and recorded in Hamburg, with a good essay about the
composer, yes, I recommend this CD strongly.

© Peter Grahame Woolf