Milhaud was a remarkably prolific composer and his opus numbers
run to well over 400. On this re-release of a 1993 ASV issue,
Carole Farley and John Constable give us three song-cycles which
cover virtually the entire span of Milhaud's career.
Such was both Milhaud's musical facility and the enormous quantity
of music that he composed, that you wonder whether all of it
is of the same standard; whether the better known pieces are
such because they actually do stand out from the general run
of Milhaud's output. I would like to think that hidden in the
enormous quantity of lesser-known works, there would be some
gems. But I am afraid that this issue does not quite persuade
me of that.
Farley and Constable start with a song cycle called Alissa dating
from 1913. It is based on Gide's short story, La porte etroite.
Milhaud has taken large chunks of the book and turned it into
a dramatic cantata. Unfortunately, it is profoundly undramatic.
Luckily Milhaud revised the piece in 1931, making it shorter
- it originally lasted an hour - and more melodic. The text
concerns two lovers, Jérome and Alissa, and the progress (or lack
of it) of their affair. There are sections in Jérome's
voice and sections in Alissa's, plus piano interludes. Milhaud
does not seem to differentiate between Jérome and Alissa,
making the piece seem flat and undifferentiated. There were
moments when Farley and Constable seemed to be simply doggedly
Milhaud's meandering musical thoughts. In his notes Matthew-Walker
describes Alissa as Milhaud's 'masterpiece in the genre',
but Farley and Constable fail to persuade me.
The second song-cycle, L'Amour Chante, is something of
an improvement. Despite the huge gap between the works - L'Amour
Chante was written in 1964 - the musical intelligence behind
the pieces is recognisably the same. L'Amour Chante sets
nine poems by various poets, all blessedly short. So that to Alissa's
mixture is added the brevity lacking in the first work. There
are moments when Milhaud recalls the rather acidulated perkiness
of some of Poulenc's lyrics, but he never reaches either Poulenc's
wit or his perfection.
The best of the three song-cycles is Poemes juifs. Written
in 1916, Milhaud set a group of poems, by anonymous Jewish writers,
which he found in a magazine. I have no idea what the songs are
about, as the texts are omitted for copyright reasons and Robert
Matthew-Walker's review concentrates on the background to the
songs. But the Jewish texts seem to have brought out a different
vein in Milhaud - who was Jewish himself. Here he is more melodic
and more memorable. Though he does use polytonality, the songs'
principal characteristic is their charming melody.
But there is another factor to be considered when thinking about
the works on this disc, and that is the performance. Carole Farley's
French is adequate but far from perfectly idiomatic. Also, she
sings rather more on the voice that you would image someone like
Denise Duvall would have done in the same piece. Farley produces
an attractive, wide-open sound which happens to have French vowels
attached, whereas French-trained singers of Milhaud's period
would have sung with a far narrower focus, and given more weight
to the words. Perhaps this would let the songs make a better
effect. As it is we must be grateful to Farley and Constable
for making these pieces available to us.
The CD booklet contains an informative note by Robert Matthew-Walker
- taken, I think, from the original ASV issue. Also included
are the texts and translations of the first two song-cycles but,
as I have said, the texts of the Poèmes Juifs are
omitted for copyright reasons.
At Naxos's super-budget price, I can safely say that this disc
is worth a try. If you have any interest in Milhaud's music,
then these performances will give you some sort of introduction
to Milhaud's songs. But once you've heard them, you may long
for a different type of performance.