Milhaud wrote an enormous amount of chamber music. At its center lie the 18 string quartets written between 1912 and 1950, a consistently absorbing body of work that is far too little known. In these works, Milhaud’s stylistic evolution can be clearly discerned, from the romantic first quartet, in language reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, to the relatively complex textures of the later works. Throughout, Milhaud’s inventiveness is evident; the 14th and 15th quartets, for example, can be combined to form an octet, but they sound complete when heard separately. Fortunately, the quartets are available in their entirety on five discs (Cybelia 804-808). The performances, by the Quatour Arcana and Quatour d’Aquitaine, are generally good. For the person buying one set, we would unhesitatingly recommend Cybelia CY-807 (*). In addition to two of the later quartets, this contains the String Quartet No. 3, a masterpiece written in 1916 mourning the loss of Milhaud’s close friend, the young poet Léo Latil, killed in World War I. In two slow movements, the first dominated by cello, the second featuring a soprano singing Latil texts, this is a powerfully moving testament, worthy of Mahler or early Schoenberg. But it should be emphasized that all Milhaud’s quartets are good, placing him in the elite company of Bartók, Shostakovich and Carter among twentieth century quartet composers.
Violin Sonata No. 2 (1917), played by Clara Bonaldi and Sylvaine Billier on Arion 68195, opens with a beautiful “Pastorale,” and its third movement, “Lent,” is full of a summery stillness. A 1957 live performance by André Gertler and Alfred Holecek on Praga 250 007 is lovelier than the Bonaldi-Billier version. The Arion disc also features the Sonata for cello and piano (1959) in a later, more melodically disjunct style, with a last movement that builds up a great head of steam. It is ably played by Pierre Pénassou and Jacqueline Robin. Yet another version of the Violin Sonata No. 2 by members of the Trio Bellerive on Koch Schwann (3-1310-2) is paired with Le printemps for violin and piano, Opus 18 (1914), the Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, and works for clarinet and piano. The interpretations on this 1991 disc are all good, but are surpassed by others in most cases (by Hobson’s in the case of the Trio). A fine new Hyperion disc includes the lyrical early Sonata for Piano and Two Violins, Opus 15 (1914) and the more muscular Duo for Two Violins, Opus 258 (1945). The performances, by Ernst Kovacic and Krysia Osostowicz, are excellent. They are assembled on this 1991 recording (Hyperion CDA66473) with pieces by Prokofiev and Martinu. The lovely Quatre visages for viola and piano (1942-43) is given a good performance by Wolfram Christ and Ivan Klánsky in a live 1986 recording on Praga 250 008. The same disc has the wonderful Sonata No. 1 for viola and piano (1944) very nicely played by Karel Spelina and Karel Friesl in a 1975 recording. In this piece Milhaud realized the basso continuo parts of anonymous eighteenth century pieces. The chords he provided for the piano are delightfully askew.
In a more serious vein, the exquisite String Trio, Opus 274 (1947), is played expertly by the Trio Albert Roussel (Cybelia CY 810). The Trio is one of Milhaud’s best chamber works, with its playful first and third movements, lyrical inner sections, and delightfully complex, brain-teasing closing fugue. Other appealing works for violin, solo or with harpsichord, are featured on Gallo CD-585, together with a sonata by Vittorio Rieti, played by Roger Elmiger and Micheline Mitrani. In a far more modern style is the Sextuour à cordes, Opus 368 (1959), one of Milhaud’s knottiest and most ingenious chamber pieces. It receives a good reading from the Atelier Instrumental d’Expression Contemporaine (REM 311166, 1991), along with sextets by D’Indy and Martinu.