Soprano Carole Farley and pianist John Constable perform three Milhaud song cycles on a new ASV disc (CDA 810). Alissa, Poèmes juifs and l’amour chante date from 1913, 1916 and 1964, respectively, and give listeners a broad picture of Milhaud’s development in this genre. Alissa was adapted from André Gide’s La porte étroite, a dense psychological novel of obsessive love foresworn, and dark, wandering recitatives draw out the tension of the mostly psychic plot development. Farley’s generally pretty delivery can’t sustain this tension plausibly, though she tries to intensify it here and there with steep descents into an unrelated, guttural lower register. A recording imbalance also mutes some of Farley’s efforts and amplifies Constable’s expressive accompaniment, which often outsings the singer, especially in the beautiful extended piano prelude to the final, confessional songs taken from Alissa’s diary.
Farley’s reading of Poèmes juifs lacks the engaging, colloquial warmth of Jane Bathori’s recording of three of the songs. This said, it is a pleasure to hear all of this formidable cycle’s eight songs, each dedicated to one of Milhaud’s Jewish friends or to the memory of one. (“Chant de Forgeron” is dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, and not surprisingly much thunder rumbles in its piano part.) L’amour chante is a premiere recording of eight settings of love poems by various French poets, including Musset, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Ronsard. Farley’s approach to these sensual, exuberant songs is once more accomplished but cool. All in all, the ASV disc is well worth hearing despite its shortcomings, and Farley and Constable are to be applauded for bringing these distinguished pieces out of relative obscurity.
Volume 2 of the Praga Milhaud Centenary series (PR 250-008) includes Chansons de négresse, settings of three poems by Jules Supervielle (librettist for Milhaud’s as-yet unrecorded opera, Bolivar.) Based on tropical dance rhythms that sometimes break into Satiesque cabaret strains, the “upbeat” melodies underline with irony the plight of a black female slave, and subtly reveal the double hardship of suffering while striving to smile, seduce, and entertain. Brigitte Fassbaender’s melifluous mezzo conveys the songs’ complex emotional messages admirably. Instead of this rather hectic live recording, however, Praga should have used the cleaner studio version Ms. Fassbaender with the same fine pianist, Irwin Gage.
Also on vol. 2 of the Praga series is a distinguished choral work, Deux chansons de Blaise Cendrars (1932) with texts loosely based on African folklore. “Chant de la mort” is a mournful, delicate wreath of intertwining male and female voices; “Danse des animaux” is a bold, joyful African primitive à la française, reminding us of the Léger sets for Cendrars’ scenario of Création du monde. The Kühn Mixed Chorus under choirmaster Pavel Kühn brings these off with great finesse.
On Praga volume 3, Soprano Eva Zikmundová and baritone Jindrich Jindrák give a wobbly, humorless reading of Hommage à Comenius with the Prague Radio Symphony (CDM PR 250 012). Comenius was a 17th century Czech humanist and educator, from whose writings Milhaud drew this 1966 cantata for the Prague Festival. Milhaud saw the timely appeal of Comenius’ optimistic cosmic lesson plan for universal understanding, but Praga has done little here to further Comenius’ cause. Volume 4 does much better with Cantique du Rhône for mixed choir a cappella, in a shimmering performance by the Czech Radio Mixed Chorus under Pavel Kühn. Paul Claudel’s voluptuous love poem to the river is full of anachronistic imagery of ravishment and conquest, but Milhaud’s setting is spellbindingly beautiful (CDM PR 250 013). For further enjoyment of Milhaud’s great a cappella choral writing, Priory offers a good recording of Les deux cités (1937) two religious poems by Claudel (PRDC 292). (The two cities are Babylon and Jerusalem.) Sung by the Michael Brewer Singers in the inimitable English choral tradition, this gorgeous polytonal tapestry is displayed to full effect, and is felicitously grouped with Poulenc’s Mass in G, Finzi’s Seven Poems of Robert Bridges and Berkeley’s Mass for five voices.