Relatively new to Milhaud, and completely so to Ginastera, it took me a while to find my bearings with the music. This was particularly the case with Milhaud, but once these incredible works get in, they stay.
Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil are quite dizzying – alternately dazzling and stomping, then reflective. They can also drift away at times into a kind of jazzy reverie. More than once I was even reminded of Gershwin, but always the music seems to reject any kind of accepted predicted melody, with notes that wilfully step away, set down feet out of step, as if moving to an altogether different tune. Like an observer perhaps, a recollection. Or an outsider. A Schoenberg in the ballroom.
The Milhaud really is extraordinary music – in moments the dance is like a tango you might see and hear in a dream, as if through a different sort of gauzy reality. Like tunes overheard in your boiling hotel room, from the bar below. It’s highly visual music, this, vivid and intense – with an impact very like the sensory driftaway effect of Laura Metcalf’s recent release, First Day. It’s so easy to get lost in music like this, to be there in your imaginary space, reaching through the insect curtain for a Johnny Walker, the fever setting in, the band playing …
When the Milhaud slows, I think it’s absolutely sublime. My favourites are the wonderful Paineiras, and Paysandu. And Corvocado too, which is superb. Paysandu in particular (which you can hear in the video below) is startling beautiful. It has an underlying tension to the jazziness, the tangoesqueness, which is totally compelling. There’s a kind of intoxicated rumination about it, I think, which is hypnotic.
This off-kilter trance between styles can be sublime – from the Paris Conservatoire, to the Brasilian night, to New York jazz. At times, during the fourth Saudade, Copacabana, I almost expect someone to start singing, “You must remember this …” And yet I still see the tango dancers, flickering as if in an old silent film reel. And then I think I hear Debussy – even if Milhaud, as one of Les Six, ostensibly had no time for him. But it’s there, some echo of France, the folk music of Milhaud’s Provence, or the invention of Paris. It’s such exciting music.
All told, something about the cumulative experience of these Saudades reminds me of listening to Chopin – in particular his Mazurkas. Not the music as such, although sometimes even that, but the way a recurring memory or evocation seems to be repeatedly examined. It is one of the joys of this record the way the different Saudades follow each other – of a part, yet different – and all recalling a Brasil of memory. With the Mazurkas, I feel I am doing the same dance, or listening to the same dance musicians over and over, but at a great distance. As if, like Chopin, there is no going home at the end of the night.
My much loved Rough Guide to Classical Music tells me that soon after his early days as one of Les Six, Milhaud was already “highly receptive to the folk music of the Americas, having accompanied the poet and diplomat Paul Clandel, an episode that was the inspiration for the nostaglic … Saudades do Brasil.” It then describes how he would soon after discover Jazz in London in 1920. It’s impossible not to think of these two episodes as being particularly entwined in the feeling of the Saudades, or that somehow both experiences were waiting to inspire a way of thinking that was already being honed.
The Milhaud is accompanied by three sublime Danzas Argentinas from Ginastera. I had never heard these before, and the pieces work exceptionally well with the Milhaud; something of the same soul inhabits both selections. My favourite is the second, Danza de la Moza Donosa, which is heartbreaking – wistful, filled with longing. It has a kind of unrequited quality which, while being quite different in style, in some senses has the recalling and searching sensitivity I love most about Schubert’s late piano music. Less claustrophobic perhaps, but equally yearning. It also, strangely, brings to mind Satie at moments. I love it.
Milhaud & Ginastera is a really fine recording, and has sent me off to explore further the moods of these two composers, and to look for any similar music. Something of the longing in these pieces just inhabits you.
CN: I’m very new to Milhaud, and amazed by these Saudades. They are dances by name, but they are a very anarchic sort of tango. They remind me somehow of the way that Chopin’s Mazurkas are dances, but then are something else entirely – a kind of state of mind in a way?
AAD: It’s interesting that you bring this up, because in musicology research, they are often linked to Chopin’s Mazurkas, for the mere fact that they integrate “folk” music elements within “classical” music. I’m not a fan of these labels, personally, but I can see where people get the connection. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of them as “dances”, in the sense that whether or not they are called a dance didn’t really affect the way I saw them, or approached them. All 12 pieces are titled after an area, or neighborhood in and around Rio de Janeiro, where Milhaud spent a few years – while I don’t think one could really hear anything that would make them link the music itself to the particular area its titled after, I do think Milhaud might have tried to create a small unique world with each of them; each piece can exist on its own, but it’s also part of a set – what comes before or after might affect the way you end up playing it. Every piece is dedicated to a particular individual and is given a very precise marking at the beginning (for example Botafogo is indicated “Doucement” or softly, Leme is indicated “A l’aise”, or comfortable, etc) that lets you know what kind of general vibe the piece is trying to communicate – so I really see them as their own little thing, their own little story, but in the end they all come together very nicely.
CN: Again with the Saudades, these are incredibly alive pieces. I tend to keep linking to other music I know – and I hear everything from Stravinsky to Gershwin in these pieces. Can you say a bit about why they appeal to you, and the challenges of playing them?
AAD: Milhaud was definitely an influence on Gershwin in some ways! I think I fell in love with them because they are so unlike anything else – my main interest is Latin American composers, and while Milhaud is French, those pieces definitely have the rhythmic aspect that drives the type of compositions I am usually attracted to. The polytonality in some of those pieces is also absolutely incredible – it takes some getting used to, but eventually the more you listen the more it sounds natural and not at all different, or strange, anymore. I think that polytonal aspect of it, however, is one of the challenges, because then you have to figure out how to phrase things in a way where you can communicate the important notes better – its not any different than playing Bach for example, but the harmonies are so different than what we are used to that sometimes we get caught up in the wrong aspect of the music.
CN: The title Saudade, even when the music is rampant and fiery, implies a kind of nostalgic longing – some kind of deep personal rumination worked out through these dances. Do you get a sense from the Saudades that Milhaud responded very deeply to his time in Brazil? And as he was there quite early in his life – how do you feel these rhythms inform all his later work?
AAD: Milhaud obviously had a very strong attachment to people and places in Brazil and it obviously had an impact important enough for him to dedicate an entire set of 12 pieces to his travels in Rio. I remember reading something about how Milhaud fell in love with Brazil and even though he left and knew he most likely wouldn’t come back, he still felt very strongly about his time there. “Saudades” does mean nostalgia and longing, but it’s not meant to be a sad thing – kind of remembering happily something that was good. So I think keeping this in mind, even the liveliest pieces evoke the joys that Milhaud experienced in Brazil and how fondly he looks back to those moments. I think being in Brazil and discovering all the syncopation and especially the piano music written by Ernesto Nazareth kinda gave him the curiosity to go beyond his European musical training and incorporate different things in his later works – think Le Boeuf sur le Toit or La Creation du Monde. But in the end, Brazil or not, I think Milhaud had a very particular way of looking at music and composition, and was hearing things that most people didn’t, so he would’ve made his own mark regardless.
CN: The three Ginastera pieces are wonderful. They are more dances, but again are quite rampant in places! The first movement seems to kick out like West Side Story, before those beautiful deep notes. Can you say a bit about why you chose these Danzas to accompany the Milhaud?
AAD: I think the Ginastera goes so well with the Milhaud because it’s so unique, but at the same time very complimentary to the Saudades. Both the Danzas and the Saudades have very evocative titles for each pieces, and both are quite ear-bending – but I think it’s easier to grasp the Danzas at first listen than some of the Saudades. They are a bit more well-known by performers and audiences, so I also felt like it would give listeners something to look forward to, after listening to 12 little-known pieces. La Danza del Gaucho Matrero is also a great piece to end a recital, or a recording, with!
CN: For those of us new to these composers, which of their works would you recommend we take to next?
AAD: I think the idea is not necessarily to focus on these composers, but to expand one’s horizons and look for other music from the same time period, and from the same countries – there’s a whole wealth of piano pieces coming out of Latin America that is not necessarily performed and recorded very much! For Ginastera, obviously I’d recommend the Danzas Criollas and his piano sonatas. Milhaud wrote some great stuff as well, but I’d love if listeners went into the same general direction, but discovered new things – for example Milhaud’s main inspiration in Brazil was the music of Ernesto Nazareth, who was also good friends with Heitor Villa-Lobos! Ginastera has dedicated some music to fellow Argentinian composer Juan Jose Castro, who also wrote amazing piano tangos and a great toccata.
CN: Just finally, I think the cover is really brilliant. Can you say a bit about how you came to choose this artwork in relation to the music?
AAD: I’m absolutely in love with the cover, and it was a happy coincidence! At first I wanted custom artwork, so I spoke to a few artists who had some existing pieces that I thought were in line with what I was going for – one of them, Cindy Robinson, sent me some samples with some pre-existing artwork and the final cover that you see was one of them. I knew from the first time I saw it that it would be perfect – it just worked, somehow. I can’t explain why, or I could try to be all fancy and introspective and find some crazy complex artsy thing to say, but really it comes down to that. It works. It’s perfect and it matches the mood of the whole album perfectly. It’s abstract but you can still make up some of the shapes, and the little birds, for example. The tone of it just goes perfectly with the music and I don’t think I would’ve gotten anything much better if I had requested a custom piece.
CN: Thank you!