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Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
A Cappella Choral Works

1) Cantique du Rhône (Canticle of the Rhône), op. 155 (1936)
2) Les Deux cites (The two cities), op. 170 (1937)
3) Devant sa main nue (Before her naked hand), op. 187, for womenís choir (1933)
4) Naissance de Vénus (The birth of Venus), op. 292 (1949)
5) Trois psaumes de David (Three psalms of David), op. 155 (1954)
6) Promesse de Dieu (Godís promise), op. 438 (1972)
Netherlands Chamber Choir/Stephen Layton
rec. Augustinuskerk, Amsterdam, May, 2001 (1, 2, 5, 6); April, 2002 (3, 4). DDD
GLOBE RECORDS GLO 5206 [59:25]

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 less inspiring.

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.

Milhaud originally 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 and Jerusalem.

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 feeling.

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 CDA67017.

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.

Michael Cookson

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