The enterprising Dutch
label Globe Records have released a
recording of three sacred and three
secular a cappella (unaccompanied)
choral works from the highly prolific
French composer Darius Milhaud.
Born in Aix-en-Provence,
Milhaudís bright and Mediterranean Ďlatiní
spirit can most clearly be heard in
these works. Their transparency and
supple form is centred on making the
text understandable. In this genre,
similarities with his fellow countryman
and contemporary Francis Poulenc are
inevitable. Poulencís predominantly
Roman Catholic church-inspired and incense-infused
choral music is frequently admired for
its exceptional quality. By comparison
I find Milhaudís music for a capella
chorus, somewhat plainer, often
sharper in harmony and considerably
It was Milhaudís friend
Poulenc who asked him to compose the
short four movement secular cantata
Cantique du Rhône (Canticle
of the Rhône) for the Chanteurs
de Lyon. Composed in 1936, it commemorates
the River Rhône, and can also
be performed in a version for vocal
quartet. For the text Milhaud uses sections
from the work of his friend the poet
and playwright Paul Claudelís La
cantate à trois voix.
composed the score to Les Deux cités,
the sacred cantata for the Abbé
Maillet and his Manécanterie
des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix
de Bois, the childrenís chorus from
Belleville in Paris. The childrenís
voices were supported by the older youths
in the tenor and bass parts. In spite
of the title the work is actually made
up of three sections; Babylon, Elégie
Composed in 1933, the
earliest work here is Devant sa main
nue (Before her naked hand), a secular
cantata for women's a cappella
chorus. The brief score was originally
premièred in Milhaudís version
for vocal quartet, however, on this
release, we have the version for women's
chorus. I have also seen the work referred
to under the opus number 122.
The brief secular cantata
Naissance de Vénus (The birth
of Venus) was composed in 1949 to
a text by the poet Jules Supervielle.
The cantata has been said to have the
chaste charm of Botticelliís paintings.
Milhaud in his 1954
sacred cantata Psaumes de David utilises
four psalms for his texts. The composer,
who was at this time living in the USA,
dedicated the work to two of his friends
who were priests and to the Benedictine
monks of the Mount Angel Abbey, in Oregon.
I have also seen the score identified
by the opus number 339.
The most recent work
on this release is the sacred cantata
Promesse de Dieu (Godís promise),
op. 438, that Milhaud composed in 1971.
At this time in his life Milhaudís already
poor heath was badly deteriorating.
The score in four movements uses biblical
texts in Latin.
Stephen Layton, the
director of the Netherlands Chamber
Choir, has impeccable credentials and
seems thoroughly at home in this repertoire.
Laytonís interpretations are heartfelt,
warm, intimate and never overblown.
There is certainly a sense of getting
to the heart of the music, assisted
by the secure and fluent approach of
the ensemble. Throughout I was impressed
with the enunciation and timbre of the
voices. However, it must be said that
I experienced these Milhaud a capella
scores as bereft of any real melodic
invention and they didnít work for me.
I was rather jaded and overloaded by
the conclusion of the release and found
the music tedious and largely forgettable.
Those looking for the
very finest continental European examples
of the genre of unaccompanied choral
works, from the first half of the twentieth
century, should look to Milhaudís close
contemporaries, his fellow-countryman
Poulenc and the Swiss-born Frank Martin.
I would highly recommend, for their
impressive invention, startlingly beautiful
textures and expressive contrasts Poulencís
cantata Figure Humaine, for a
capella mixed double choir (1943),
the Litanies à la Vierge Noire
(Litanies for The Black Virgin), for
womenís voices and organ (1936) and
the Mass in G major, for four-part
a capella chorus (1937). In addition,
Martinís wonderful Mass for a
capella double choir (1922) is indispensable
for its strong lyricism and highly dramatic
In Poulencís Figure
Humaine, my favourite account is
the release from Accentus, the French
chamber choir, under the direction of
Laurence Equilbey, on Naïve V4883.
There is a fine version of Poulencís
Litanies à la Vierge Noire,
from the Lyon National Choir under Serge
Baudo, on HM HMC 905149. My premier
recording of the Martin Mass,
is the outstanding and award-winning
account from the Westminster Cathedral
Choir, under James OíDonnell, on Hyperion
On this Milhaud Globe
release there are several mistakes in
the booklet notes. Full texts are provided,
however particularly irritating is the
inconsistency with the track numbering.
Furthermore, two of the given opus numbers
seem to conflict with another list that
I have seen. Recorded in the Augustinuskerk
in Amsterdam, the sound quality is acceptable.