The vocal quartet was a favorite vehicle for Milhaud, represented on The Classical Collector by three excerpts from Les amours de Ronsard (1934) for vocal quartet and orchestra. These settings of Ronsard poems are dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, but the cycle’s shape and mood are closer to Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer. Technical inadequacies in the 1936 recording may be responsible for the sluggish tempi and distorted pitch in this performance with members of the Paris Opera under Milhaud’s direction. (The transfer must have been made from warped 78s.)
Luckily Les amours de Ronsard is offered in full in a superlative performance on ADDA (581292 AD 184) under Bernard Desgraupes. The most uniformly fine collection of modern Milhaud performances, this disc is devoted to Milhaud compositions for vocal quartet and instruments written over a span of more than twenty years. The earliest of these, Adages (1932), combines a wind quartet and a string quartet with the four voices. Milhaud originally set André de Richaud’s fanciful verse adages as scene-openers for the play “Le Château de Papes,” set in Medieval Avignon. Poetry and music combine a folk simplicity with a fairylike grace, casting a midsummer-night’s-dream spell.
Echoes of the past are also heard in Suite de sonnets (1963), settings of Renaissance poems for six instruments and vocal quartet in which the mezzo voice is replaced by an haute-contre. Desgraupes’ liner notes describe the Suite as “a continuation of ancient music, now in contemporary musical speech” with atonal harmonies incorporating Renaissance ornament and counterpoint. (Each sung sonnet is accompanied by a wonderfully wierd ensemble of flute, oboe, bassoon, viola, trombone and harpsichord, and alternates with an instrumental prelude.)
The ADDA disc ends with La Cantate de l’Homme. Written for the inauguration of the ethnographic collection of Paris’ Musée de l’Homme in 1937, the text by Robert Desnos is an alternative Genesis that allowed Milhaud to revisit the idea of the world’s beginnings. Though more self-consciously literary and less viscerally exciting than Milhaud’s famous jazz ballet, La Création du monde, La Cantate de l’Homme has a story-telling magic of its own, especially in this sensitive production. Along with the quartet material, it makes a fine finish to this delightful collection. Such unusual texts might well have been included in the liner notes, otherwise beautifully written and produced. However, the crisp diction and faultless intonation of these accomplished singers makes much of the poetry accessible without such aids.