Milhaud delayed writing symphonies for full orchestra until 1940, but composed a total of twelve between then and 1961, and several are now on disc. The charm and serenity of Symphony no. 1‘s first movement, and the elegiac mood of the third, contrast starkly with the rough fast movements and the boisterous “Très vif” contains dense, clever contrapuntal writing. Symphony no. 2 (1944) opens with a gorgeous slow movement, “Paisible,” followed by “Mystérieux,” full of complex polytonalities and orchestral effects; “Douloureux,” is as angry as mournful, but the closing “Alleluia” lives up to its title. These 1991 performances by the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse under Michel Plasson, are excellent. (Deutsche Grammophon 435 437-2).
The Symphony no. 8 (1957), “Rhodanienne,” is a frankly programmatic work evoking Provence’s great river. Its first movement, “Avec mystère et violence,” is full of anxiety and unrelieved tension, with remarkable passages for the strings (often playing harmonics), flutes, oboe and English horn, and percussion. The live 1966 performance by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Václav Neumann (Praga 250 013), is highly proficient, if perhaps lacking the last soupçon of idiomatic nuance.
Milhaud’s Symphony no. 10 (1960) is one of the composer’s most assured accomplishments in the genre. The first and fourth movements are full of verve, the latter rich enough in thematic material to fill several symphonies. The hauntingly lyrical second movement, “Expressif,” ingeniously orchestrated especially in the woodwinds, is followed by an antic third movement of great wit. The live 1970 performance by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Zdenek Kosler (Praga 250 012) is a pleasure. The same disc features another important symphonic piece, Music for Prague (1965). In this highly accomplished mature work, Milhaud adopts an advanced tonal idiom, the first and third movements muscular, with virtuosic and prominent brass and percussion writing, full of portent, relieved in the third by outbursts of jollity. The reflective second movement, “Lent,” is reminiscent of Copland. This lively 1966 concert performance, with the composer conducting the Czech Philharmonic, is full of enthusiasm.