Saturday, March 21, 2015

Darius Milhaud's "L'Orestie d'Eschyle"

Naxos 8.660349-51 (3-disc set) (2014)
Milhaud: L'Orestie d'Eschyle (The Oresteia of Aeschylus)
Lori Phillips (soprano) Clytemnestra 
Kristen Eder (mezzo-soprano) Elektra
Dan Kempson (baritone) Orestes
Sidney Outlaw (baritone) Apollo
Sophie Delphis (speaker) Leader of the slave women
University Choirs and UMS Choral Union
University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble
University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Kiesler

The three works on this exciting program were composed between 1913 when Milhaud was 21, and 1923. In the ten years between the two shorter incidental works, L'Agamemnon (Agamemnon) (1913) and Les Cho√©phores (The Libation Bearers) (1915-16), and the completion of Milhaud's full-scale operatic masterpiece Les Eumenides (The Furies) (1917-23), the composer had discovered the primitive timbres and vibrant native rhythms of Brazil, and developed the polytonal techniques and dense instrumental textures that are still synonymous with his name.

This recording was made under the supervision, and with the great encouragement of William Bolcolm, one of Milhaud's most famous pupils and, himself, a veritable institution at Michigan. The performances are surprisingly mature, academically note-perfect as one would expect, and yet richly atmospheric, unfailingly expressive, emotionally powerful, and moving. (All too often I get the sense from college and university performers that they have no real opinion about the music, no emotional investment or passion; there's a kind of tentativeness, I fear, due in large part to the attitudes of far too many jaded instructors. Happily, not so here!)

It is wonderful to have so fine a performance of the complete triptych in magnificent sound at last. Kudos to Naxos for taking what is surely something of a commercial risk with this more unusual  repertory, and to the performing forces for their strong commitment to the eclectic spirit of the work, a sense of wonder and, yes, passion!  Lovers of Milhaud's music will want to acquire this gem of an album posthaste!

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