Between 1917 and 1923 Milhaud wrote six “petites symphonies” for between six and ten players (and in one case singers), each lasting between three and six minutes in the composer’s chosen tempi. Four of these are now available in a new disc with the Sinfonia Orchestra of Chicago under Barry Faldner, recorded in 1990-91 and also including works of Gounod and Debussy (Koch 3-7067-2H10). In the first chamber symphony, “Le printemps,” Opus 43, the mood is idyllic, the language conservative, impressionistic, pretty. The second, “Pastorale,” Opus 49, written in 1918, is in a far more modern idiom, with ambitious, virtuosic instrumental writing. It is not surprising, given the rhythmic contours of the piece, to discover that a great deal of it was written on a ship at sea. The third chamber symphony, “Sérénade,” Opus 71 (1921) is in the same modern idiom as the second. The last movement, “Rondement,” may remind some of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat in its relentless energetic drive. In the same way, the fifth of the chamber symphonies, “Dixtuour d’instruments à vent,” Opus 75 (1922) displays some of the same extremes of wind and brass sonorities, and the same uncompromising modernity, that appears in the works of Edgar Varèse. Throughout, the Chicago players acquit themselves with honor.
Another intriguing account of the fifth “petite symphonie” is on Praga 250 007, played by the Prague Wind Band under Libor Pesek. Their 1964 interpretation is even more astringent and dissonant. And a new release from Koch Schwann contains the complete “petites symphonies” together with Les trois opéras-minute (3-1139-2, recorded 1990-91). The performances of the symphonies, by the Capella Cracoviensis under Karl Anton Rickenbacher, are less proficient than those of the Chicago group, and lack the panache of this Polish ensemble’s recording of the orchestrated Saudades. Still, it is good to have the complete chamber symphonies on disc, especially the fourth, Opus 75, the wonderful “Dixtuour” for stringed instruments (1921). This piece, with its vigorous opening motif and canonic final movement reshaped by polytonal treatment, sounds for all the world like a nice baroque concerto grosso that was accidentally left out overnight in the damp.