Darius Milhaud, and All That Jazz

Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar.

Only a handful of "classical" composers have created successful amalgamations of jazz and art music, that is, works that integrate the American style with traditional European procedures rather than uncomfortably superimposing one on the other.

Ravel turned the trick, subtly, in his G-major Piano Concerto of 1929. The undervalued Piano Concerto written two years earlier by the (French-trained) Aaron Copland pulls off the blend with comparable skill, with the jazz element more to the fore, although not quite the presence it is in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Piano Concerto in F (1924 and 1925, respectively).

There was a precedent, however, in "La Creation du Monde" (1923) by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), arguably the most clever, and easily the hottest, work in the brief history of classical jazz: music in which the jazzy American animus is as obvious as the composer's French nationality.

"La Creation," a ballet score to a black-African Adam and Eve scenario, never was a frequent visitor to the concert hall, perhaps because it doesn't fit conveniently into any musical category, either formally or in terms of instrumental layout, calling for small forces but of unusual makeup, mostly winds, brass and percussion.

Milhaud's bluesily polytonal piece is also wittily learned (how Milhaud loved his fugues!), its smarmy saxophone and trombone riffs coexisting with elegantly impressionistic oboe solos and bits of achingly sweet fiddling that are knocked flat by the rowdy, bone-rattling percussion.

As has become a tradition with such relatively bypassed works, "La Creation" returns to recordings not singly but in a bunch, with three different editions appearing in a single week. This is a harbinger, one hopes, of a revival of interest in seeking out the best of Milhaud, a preposterously prolific, occasionally inspired original whose 100th birthday comes on Sept. 4 (which is also Bruckner's birthday).

Of the three versions, one can be quickly dismissed: that in which the late Andrew Schenk leads the Atlantic Sinfonietta in a reading that never gets over its ponderous opening measures, perhaps because the conductor, despite the presence of instrumentalists alert to the score's specific sound world, is intent on shaping its freewheeling phrases into classical paragraphs.

The disc (Koch 7091) does, however, contain a likable account of another learned creation, in which Baroque polyphony meets jazz and oompah: Kurt Weill's "Kleine Dreigroschenmusik." There is also the slender, Weill-derived suite from the 1950s opera "The Good Soldier Schweik" by the short-lived American composer Robert Kurka, which relates the misadventures of a comic Wozzeck, the disingenuous everyschmuck of Jaroslav Hasek's cruelly funny novel of the same name.

To savor the full measure of vigor and originality in Milhaud's "Creation," turn to either of the other recently arrived versions, one being a reissue of the hectic, noisy, occasionally scrappy and always immensely flavorful 1961 performance by conductor Charles Munch and members of the Boston Symphony, then the world's top French orchestra, with its vibrato-laden brass, its sublimely unctuous saxophone and sinuous solo clarinet (RCA Victor 60685, mid-price).

The Munch-BSO reading comes as part of a fully packed CD that also contains a pair of symphonies by Arthur Honegger, his Second and Fifth, and Milhaud's sunny "Suite Provencale"--none of which have anything to do with jazz.

Another head-bashing but more elegantly executed version (2x4s with rounded edges) and without wind vibrato, is part of a 1920s French program in which Yan Pascal Tortelier (son of the late cellist Paul Tortelier) directs the Belfast-based Ulster Orchestra, an unlikely but convincing proponent of French culture and wit (Chandos 9023).

Tortelier and associates present a clean-lined, by no means prettified "Creation" in big-hall, typically gorgeous Chandos sound, in contrast to RCA's close-up sonics, which are well-suited to Munch's battering insistence.

The Chandos disc further contains Milhaud's masterpiece of musical Dada, the Cocteau-inspired "Boeuf sur le Toit," with its Keystone Kops evocations and run-amok sambas; a suite from Poulenc's charming, if uncharacteristically well-behaved "Les Biches," and the dated, dumb jokes of Ibert's "Divertissement."

And while we're on the subject of jazz stylizations, try to find a Melodiya recording, briefly circulated here (under various catalogue numbers) shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union and nominally devoted to one of Shostakovich's most indigestible dumplings, his massive Fourth Symphony. The real value of the disc resides in eight hilarious minutes of smirky, funny pseudo-jazz intermingled with a sendup of '30s ballroom styles: Shostakovich's 1934 Suite for Jazz Band, Opus 38, with Gennady Rozhdestvensky tongue-in-cheekily directing an anonymous ensemble of virtuoso soloists.

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