I first heard Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde about six years ago on BBC radio when it was played by a friend of mine, the English actor Steven Berkoff, as part of his selection of music on a programme called Private Passions. The music immediately hit a nerve and resonated so much that I promptly ordered a CD from Amazon. I played it continuously over the following days and it would certainly figure in my top ten favourite pieces of music.
Commissioned by the Ballets Suédois in 1922, the piece views the creation of the world from an African perspective. In the couple of years prior to composing La Creation Milhaud had discovered jazz on a visit to London and then, some time later, found what he called the “authentic” version on the streets of Harlem in New York. He wrote, “Against the beat of the drums, the melodic lines crisscrossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms.” The result of these profound influences was La Creation du Monde which premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in October 1923.
So, when I saw Den Haag’s Residentie Orkest was performing it as part of their Slagwerk & Snaren (Percussion & Strings) concert I made it a priority to get a ticket. Now, the first thing to be said is that this was not the full ensemble version, but Milhaud’s own adaptation for piano and string quartet known as Op.81b.
It’s a pity the Orkest couldn’t have rustled up a few more musicians to play the eighteen instruments required for the original work, as a string quartet plus piano is always going to be a poor substitute. There are many layers of satisfying texture plus a richness and colour to the ensemble piece which is scored for a melange of woodwind plus trumpets, trombone, saxophone, French horn et al, and a respectable quota of percussion instruments. There was no way this line up could come close, which was disappointing. That said, the five musicians made a brave fist of it and with Tobias Borsboom’s piano dominating in certain places, it sometimes had the feel of Gershwin, although it pre-dates Rhapsody in Blue by a year. There was no mistaking the Americaness of it, but there were hints of Erik Satie which are perhaps not so evident in the full score.
Would I have enjoyed it more if I did not know, and was not so fond of, the ensemble version? Maybe. There were some nice piano passages and other parts worked well enough with a string quartet but, on the whole, I found it dull and lifeless. But understand, this is a criticism of the piece as arranged, not the players who performed beautifully.
There was no shortage of percussion with John Cage’s Third Construction played enthusiastically by Chris Leenders, Martin Ansink, Murk Jiskoot and Ramon Lormans. They had the full quota of percussion instruments, plus a lot more. There were biscuit tins, upturned champagne buckets, bits of string being pulled through drum skins and lots of other items I could not see. It amazes me how somebody can write a score for that let alone understand it if they have to play it. They managed to do it and it all worked seamlessly. Great fun.
Finally the quartet – Mara Oosterbaan and Orges Caku on violins, Timur Yakubov on viola with Miriam Kirby on cello – were back, this time on safer ground with Beethoven’s 1809 String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74. Nicknamed the “harp” quartet due to the amount of pizzicato involved in the allegro of the first movement, this is heroic, sterling stuff with some recognizable parallels to the composer’s Fifth Symphony. There was a satisfying cohesion to the playing which brought the best out of the piece.
Pity about the Milhaud, but an entertaining evening nonetheless in the wonderful venue which is The Hague’s Nieuwe Kerk. Michael Hasted 5th October 2022
Photo by Astrid Burchardt