The vocal reissues on Chant du Monde (CDM LDC 278 1069), contrast the darkest of Milhaud’s cantatas with his sunniest of song cycles, played by members of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Paris, led by the composer. The opening piece, Le château de feu, based on a poem by Jean Cassou, was set for choir and small orchestra as part of a concert given in 1955 by the “Réseau du Souvenir” (the “Network of Remembrance”) in memory of French Jews and Resistance fighters deported by the Nazis. Devastatingly spare, conceived as a single movement and orchestrated completely in the lower register with no violin section, the cantata is a study in anguish, shaped with archetypal symmetry. Both the work and the performance command respect.
La mort d’un tyran (1932) which follows is a setting of Diderot’s translation from Lampridius describing the Roman people’s outcry at the death of the emperor Commodus. The piece is scored for percussion and shouted, unpitched voices (as in Le château de feu, grouped in male and female choruses) with only a piccolo, clarinet and tuba to suggest a melody, nearly trampled under the work’s incessant rhythmic beat. Again, the ensemble is up to the piece’s rigorous demands, and the result is vivid and unsettling.
|* David Els, ed. The National Gardening Association Dictionary of Horticulture. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, pp. 172, 53, 150.|
The lyrical grace of Catalogue de fleurs (1920) closes the disc on a surprisingly sweet note. The text, taken by Lucien Daudet from an actual garden catalogue, seems to bloom in the translucent textures of Milhaud’s setting. This version is for soprano and seven instruments, and the performance captures the subtly surreal tone of the songs. The lovely singing is not attributed in the liner notes, but it seems to be a reissue of the Irène Joachim recording, made for Chant du Monde in the mid-1950’s. Cool and clear, the soprano line is expressive but spare, almost calligraphic against the complex timbres of strings and winds.
The solo piano version of Catalogue de fleurs is the title piece on one of a series of Nimbus discs (NI 5337) devoted to Hugues Cuenod, “le maître de la mélodie.” Cuenod’s warm tenor and subtle nuances of phrasing caress the Begonia and the Crocus, while Geoffrey Parsons’ articulate touch restrains this ardor like a border. To these delicacies Nimbus adds the Quatre poèmes de Léo Latil, lush with natural imagery that clearly brought out the impressionist in his boyhood friend Milhaud. These 1914 settings have the ripeness of Chabrier or Fauré, and Cuenod’s voice, floating on their perfumed waves of sound, is in its element. Milhaud later used the melody for “Le Rossignol” in his third string quartet, a memorial to Latil, who died in the war the year after these songs were composed.