This stunning collection of the late Darius Milhaud's string quartets -- his "La Creation du Monde" and his "Cantate de l'Enfant et de la Mere" -- by the Mondriaan Quartet will become, in time, the definitive reading of these pieces. No one with the possible exception of the Kronos comprehends the jazz architectures at work in this smaller version of "La Creation du Monde." Originally written for an orchestra, this scaled-down declaration uses the five movements to accent the ragtime rhythms and early gypsy swing arpeggios, subtle timbres, and syncopated melodies. In the third movement, the "Romance," he uses a classic vaudeville ending as his opening theme. And while it is true that this is Milhaud's most famous work and has been recorded by many, it has never been performed with such tenderness and accuracy; it has been read by the Mondriaans and pianist Stanley Hoogland, via its primary jazz inspiration, jazz. The two quartets, numbers three and four, are stark contrasts of one another. The third is in two movements, and darker, more somber than any of Milhaud's other 17 works for these instruments. It mirrors Debussy's impressionistic optimism with a dirge-like processional expressionism that is equally French and expresses the coming threat of war. The fourth is sprightly, a near dance piece base donning a scherzo that revels in its repetitious themes and variations. The viola and violins literally dance around the cello's pulse. Finally, the sublime "Cantate" -- written in 1938 literally 12 years after any of the other pieces collected here -- uses the popular music of the day in both France and the U.S., recalls Debussy's obsession with color and nuance, and combines it with a poetic recitative written by Maurice Careme. There is an openness of frame and meter here that allows the vocalist to phrase the poem according to breath rather than meter. This creates a challenge for the quartet and Hoogland, but they are more than up for the challenge; they keep each of the 11 movements -- in three parts -- flowing through stylistic, harmonic, and melodic transformations. One discovers in a work like this the sheer beatific vision Milhaud had: his was a music inclusive of the world around him, not at all private, song styles and approximations of the popular melodies of the day slip in and out of his musical text without a hint of "faddishness." Milhaud was aware that he was an artist; there was no need to prove it to anyone else. The Mondriaans in, their moving and fluid reading of these works, reveal this composer's timeless appeal for composers of all stripes -- remember, even Dave Brubeck and Jimmy Giuffre studied with this guy -- who are interested in the colors of harmonic architecture and the textures of ambience and subtly insistent timbres.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek