Milhaud: String Quartets (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Milhaud
LABELS: NAIVE
WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Parisii Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: V 4900
This is pretty hard work. While there are some things that are consistent throughout the quartets, there’s very little that’s individual. Right from the Debussy-influenced First Quartet of 1912, Milhaud shows a fondness for keeping all of the players busy almost all of the time, leading to aural overload. It’s not that he doesn’t vary the textures: there are intensely contrapuntal movements, music-hall or Latin American idioms are used for light relief, folksy and neo-classical turns of phrase often turn up, and sometimes he’ll mute everyone for a movement, as he does in the 16th Quartet. There are a lot of what the booklet-note writer describes as ‘those joyously boisterous movements which are so typical of Milhaud’ – but they’re all fairly interchangeable. And the whole thing isn’t helped by Milhaud’s use of polytonality, where the individual lines, though simple and tonal in themselves, are all in different keys. The Fifth Quartet, dedicated to Schoenberg, is more weighty than the Sixth, dedicated to Poulenc, but the same harmonic greyness pervades both. This comes to a head in the 14th and 15th Quartets, which can be played simultaneously as an octet: even in the committed performance here, it’s like wading through porridge. The one really gripping piece is the long first movement of the Fourth Quartet, dedicated to the memory of the poet Léo Latil, where Milhaud engages fully with the emotions. It’s beautifully played by the Parisii Quartet, which sails through the technical demands of all the quartets with ease. I’m just not sure that it was worth it. Martin Cotton

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