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Milhaud: Alissa, L'amour Chante, Poemes Juifs / Carole Farley

Release Date: 10/27/2009 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572298   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Darius Milhaud
Performer:  John ConstableCarole Farley
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MILHAUD Alissa. Poèmes juifs. L’amour chanté Carole Farley (sop); John Constable (pn) NAXOS 8.572298 (71:28 Text and Translation)

Darius Milhaud, like Hindemith and Martin?, was astoundingly prolific. While Martin?’s music seems to be gaining respect with increased exposure, and interest in Hindemith seems to wax and wane, much of Milhaud’s huge output—443 opuses—remains unperformed and unrecorded. If this recording of what Naxos Read more calls “the cream of Milhaud’s output for voice and piano” is any indication, his incredibly varied śuvre undoubtedly contains important material—operas, chamber music, over 300 songs, all sorts of miscellaneous works—of very high quality that should be heard.

The excellent soprano, Carole Farley, known for tackling adventurous repertoire, recorded the three seldom-heard sets of songs offered here in 1992. They come from the beginning and the end of Milhaud’s long career, and represent varied approaches to song writing. Farley’s singing is agile and accurate and while one wouldn’t take her French to be that of a native speaker, it’s very good. The resourceful piano parts are played by John Constable, a harpsichordist whose lucid, colorful playing makes an important contribution here.

Milhaud’s Alissa , op. 9, based on André Gide’s 1909 novel, La porte étroite , concerns the impossible love of the boy Jerome and his older cousin, Alissa. Alissa , an unclassifiable work, more like a solo cantata than a song cycle, was originally composed in 1913 and revised in 1931, its hour length reduced to 35 minutes. In his autobiography, My Happy Life , Milhaud tells the story of how he played Alissa for Gide: “I do not think that Gide liked Alissa very much. After hearing it he said to me in his sing-song voice, ‘Thank you for making me feel my prose was so beautiful.’” Composed in eight sections, including a movement for piano solo, Milhaud takes dialogue, first person narration (the novel is told from Jerome’s point of view), letters, and excerpts from Alissa’s journal directly from the novel without providing any particular narrative direction. Gide’s prose is beautiful and La porte étroite , a hypersensitive meditation on youth, love, and French Catholic guilt, well translated by Dorothy Bussy ( Strait is the Gate ), is still quite fascinating to read. Milhaud’s smoothly expressive music, solidly in the French mélodie tradition and influenced by the clear word setting of Debussy’s Pelléas, enhances it further. According to Milhaud, Jane Bathori was Alissa ’s sole interpreter for 20 years, and the work hasn’t exactly flourished in concert after that. This recording solves the problem of the utter impracticality of finding performers and audiences for such a demanding and rarified piece. Farley, Constable, and Naxos should be thanked for their labor of love in presenting it.

L’amour chanté , op. 409, from 1964, is a group of nine mostly very brief songs, set to love poetry by an assortment of poets ranging from Pierre de Ronsard to Verlaine and Rimbaud. This is its first recording. Milhaud’s polytonal idiom here is extremely dissonant, with very angular musical lines. These are not catchy tunes, but their small, telling gestures have great vitality. I agree with Robert Matthew-Walker’s comment in his exceptionally well-written booklet notes that Milhaud’s musical expression has the “beauty and ardor of a twentieth-century troubadour from Provence,” and the music, despite its difficulty, passes the test of what Milhaud’s teacher, André Gédalge, demanded in song writing: “[J]ust write eight bars that can be sung unaccompanied.”

Poèmes juifs , op. 34 from 1916, is a series of eight songs based on anonymous texts that Milhaud found in a magazine, and they come closest of the three collections here to being a song cycle. Naxos does not include the translations for copyright reasons. The songs, some of which are strophic and folk-like, are unified by ostinatos in the piano part and a direct vocal style that is heartfelt in its simplicity. This is the most accessible music on the disc. Among the highlights are the first song, “Chant de nourrice,” a gently rocking, bitonal lullaby, and the final “Lamentation,” which is quite tragic in feeling. Each song is dedicated to a Jewish friend or relative, living or deceased, and Milhaud’s atypical exploration of his own Jewish background is a moving experience. I first encountered Milhaud’s Poèmes juifs in a delightfully unpredictable way that fellow “serious record collectors” can probably relate to. In the early 1990s, Swarthmore College’s music library sold off its excellent collection of LPs. Enticed by the Fauré song cycle, Le chanson d’Éve on the first side, I bought an old London recording with hideous cover art. At the sale price of 10 cents, I was willing to take a chance on a singer whom I hadn’t heard of, the mezzo, Irma Kolassi. On side 2 was Milhaud’s Poèmes juifs . Kolassi, a mezzo, was known in France in the 1940s for her superior musicianship and her ability to learn new music. I found her singing to be sublime. Her languorous delivery, sensuous tone, and impeccable French in the “Chant de nourrice” cast a spell that lasted through the whole performance. Though somewhat unappreciated, Kolassi is not unknown—and her Poèmes juifs has been reissued on Testament. Farley’s performance is very good; Kolassi’s is a classic.

FANFARE: Paul Orgel
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Works on This Recording

Alissa, Op. 9 by Darius Milhaud
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Carole Farley (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913/1931; France 
Length: 35 Minutes 1 Secs. 
L'amour chante, Op. 409 by Darius Milhaud
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Carole Farley (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1964; France 
Length: 13 Minutes 40 Secs. 
Počmes juifs, Op. 34 by Darius Milhaud
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Carole Farley (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1916; France 
Length: 18 Minutes 31 Secs. 

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