Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, March 2011

What is it, exactly, about French music of the teens, 20s, and early 30s that makes it so wonderful, so enjoyable? Is it because of the lively rhythms, the bright sonorities, the general joie de vivre? All of that, yes, plus a willingness not to take one’s self or the music too terribly seriously. There’s always a tongue-in-cheek wryness to the music of Satie, Dukas, Auric, Poulenc, and Milhaud that escapes their more serious-minded Russian and German brethren. Yes, they meant what they wrote—Milhaud stated many times that Le Bœuf sur le toit was not a joke, but his honest reaction to Brazilian bands—but the uncanny accuracy of their replications always lent a somewhat bent air to the proceedings.

These marvelous examples of early Milhaud are no exception. Only the French would dare exploit two such bright instruments as the clarinet and violin together, playing in their high ranges where the combined sound is more piercing still. The joyous, quirky suite for these two instruments plus piano is a reduction of his 1936 incidental music for Jean Anouilh’s play Le Voyageur sans bagages. Latin-American rhythms abound to give the work a light and happy feeling, and these performers capture that mood perfectly. The first and third movements of Scaramouche derive from the incidental music Milhaud wrote for a revival of Molière’s Le Médecin Volant in 1937. The lead instrument is, optionally, clarinet or alto saxophone. As well as Jean-Marc Fessard plays it on clarinet, I’d love to hear the alto sax version.

With the second violin sonata, we jump 20 years back in time to 1917. This is more “serious” Milhaud, but still light and airy in his use of space, keeping the violin muted throughout and, in the fast movements (marked, as was Milhaud’s wont, vif, which is a French word encompassing all of the following: alive, brisk, spirited, animated, meddlesome, ardent, eager, and keen), showing remarkable contrapuntal and harmonic ingenuity. Frédéric Pélassy, particularly in the first and third movements, plays certain passages here with a tight, minimal vibrato, some sustained high notes sounding to my ears vibratoless. This is in keeping with the French violin school of the era, which did not adopt a continuous vibrato until the 1930s. The third movement (Lent) is almost Debussy-like in its quietude and serenity. The second and final Vif is meddlesome and quarrelsome indeed.

We hear an entirely different Milhaud in the 1927 Clarinet Sonatina, featuring harsh polytonality that includes minor ninths and augmented fourths. The first movement is particularly complex, using quirky descending motives rather freely; yet, even here, a spirit of lightness imbues this work. Stravinsky would have made something far more serious of the same material. The second movement, by contrast, returns to Milhaud’s tender, dreamy side before the last movement thrusts us, again, into a more thorny discourse, using the descending motif of the opening in multiple variations.

The very brief Le Printemps (1914), the earliest work on this CD, returns us to atmospheric tranquility, while the violin-piano version of Le Bœuf sur la toit is not merely a reduction of the orchestral ballet score, but rather a reduction of his original concept of the piece as a violin concerto. (After first writing the orchestral version, Milhaud wanted to send the score to Charlie Chaplin to use in one of his films, but Jean Cocteau talked him into making it a French ballet instead.) As this is the most familiar piece on the CD (albeit not in this version), the music needs less description or comment, except to say that Pélassy and Elaine Reyes play it very well indeed, capturing the work’s wry humor if somewhat underplaying its Latin energy. The little melody played just before the five-minute mark has the most Chaplinesque quality.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, November 2010

Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) one of the 20 th century’s most prolific composers, was also one of the easiest to love. His rhythms are highly infectious, as is his fondness for popular and folk-inflected melodies. His natural proclivities, in part a product of his Provençal origin, were further heightened by his assignment in Rio de Janeiro as secretary to French diplomat and poet Paul Claudel in 1917–19, giving him the opportunity to absorb the characteristic rhythms of that country.

We find Milhaud in his most typically delightful vein in the works presented on this program by two young Frenchmen, Jean-Marc Fessard, clarinet; and Frédéric Pélassy, violin; with Belgian pianist Eliane Reyes. The Suite, Op. 157b for all three instruments is simple and relaxed in style, its diversity deriving from quicksilver changes in mood and tempo, especially in the aptly named middle movements, Divertissement and Jeu (game). The fascinating dialogue between the melody instruments and the lively Latin-American rhythm in the piano part catch our interest from the outset. Scaramouche, Op. 165d for clarinet and piano, contrasts engaging material in the middle movement, marked Modéré, with snazzy outer movements, marked Vif (lively) and Brazileira. The latter contains a samba melody of which Milhaud was so fond he used it on other occasions, as we shall hear in this program!

Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 40 is in four movements, Pastorale-Vif-Lent-Très Vif. Pélassy and Reyes are clearly much taken with the lively duple and triple meters and the polytonal piano accompaniments in the quick movements, while the slow movement has much intimacy and charm. Fessard and Reyes give the Clarinet Sonatina, Op. 100 a performance that stresses the dissonant harmonies resulting from Milhaud’s use of polytonality in the outer movements, both marked Trés rude (The French word implies primitive simplicity, not impoliteness). The slow movement, Lent, is tender and dreamy with a somber central episode for contrast. The gently lilting Printemps, Op. 18 for violin and piano is as relaxed and supple as anything in this program.

Finally, Milhaud’s 20-minute Cinéma-Fantaisie, Op. 18, was a reworking of his ballet Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof: The name is that of a famous night spot in Rio) to provide incidental music for Brazilian showings of Charlie Chaplin movies. It uses the catchy melody we heard earlier in this program in the Brazileira finale of Scaramouche. (I found it impossible to keep my seat when listening to its infectious rhythm, so great was the temptation to get up and move in time to it. Just try it and see!) Reyes savors the gentle sway of the piano accompaniment and the changing moods of gayety and sadness throughout the highly imaginative fantasia, while Pélassy has an outstanding opportunity to show his stuff in its terrific central cadenza.

WRUV Reviews, October 2010

Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) wrote film and stage music, in addition to instrumentals, examples of all on this CD. Definitely French modern, lyrical, somewhat impressionistic. La Boeuf sur le Toit is composed almost entirely of Brazilian popular music from 1897–1919. Play any!

Patsy Morita, October 2010

This is a nice little selection of the chamber music of Darius Milhaud featuring clarinet, violin, and piano in varying combinations, beginning with the brief Suite for all three instruments. There’s a gentleness and wittiness in most of this music—although Milhaud could also be dolorous, for example in the introduction of the Suite’s finale—primarily because he drew on themes from his stage music for the Suite, Scaramouche, and the Cinéma fantaisie d’après Le bœuf sur le toit, not to mention the presence of his trademark infectious Brazilian rhythms. The Violin Sonata No. 2 and the Clarinet Sonatina are slightly more serious in mood, and in the case of the Sonatina, more harmonically adventurous. The three musicians here—clarinetist Jean-Marc Fessard, violinist Frédéric Pélassy, and pianist Eliane Reyes—work excellently together to bring the music to life. Their ensemble work in the Suite is sharply precise. Even in the Sonata and Sonatina, there is a sense that it’s not all just about the violin or clarinet. Pélassy and Fessard allow Reyes to bring out the piano part to show that the works are often more like true duets, for example in Scaramouche’s dizzying opening or the Violin Sonata’s Vif movement. The Fantaisie is a more of a duet almost by necessity because there’s so much going on in it, but without a doubt it’s the violin that gets the spotlight with some fancy effects (such as playing in two keys at once) and even a cadenza that’s not in the original work. The three musicians also give detailed attention to coloring in a natural, instinctive-sounding way...The Suite, Scaramouche, and the Fantaisie are obvious picks here, leaving no doubt as to why they are so popular, but the other selections are also deserving of a listen.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

Numbered among that notorious 20th century group of French composers, Les Six, Darius Milhaud was to be their most highly productive member. The present disc covers music, in various permutations, for clarinet, violin and piano and comes from the first part of his career. Scaramouche was originally written as incidental music for a play and is scored for saxophone or clarinet and piano. while the clarinet also features in an unusual version of the ballet, Le Boeuf sur le toit, here given the title, Cinéma-Fantaisie. The booklet recalls that Milhaud wanted to send the score to Charlie Chaplin as background music for a film, but was dissuaded from doing so. It was then recast as a ballet to be used by Cocteau, Milhaud later deciding to reuse the score for violin and orchestra. Taken one stage further, the work is here presented with the orchestral part played by piano. Its contents have been traced back to popular tunes Milhaud heard during his time in Brazil, though the Second Violin Sonata, also written in South America, contains none of the influences of his time there. It is a lyrically flowing, and. at times, piquant score whose inspiration comes from his French homeland. The Clarinet Sonatina is a more pungent score, though the soloist, Jean-Marc Fessard, produces a smooth and sophisticated sound. Some uneasy intonation from the much acclaimed violinist, Frederic Pelassy, in the hugely demanding Cinéma-Fantaisie, with Elaine Reyes bringing a very positive piano accompaniment throughout.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group