Stephen Layton

Darius Milhaud: Choral Works

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These performances by the Netherlands Chamber Choir and conductor Stephen Layton, recorded in 2001-2002, offer a rare glimpse of Darius Milhaud's unaccompanied choral music. In sound and spirit it most closely resembles the choral music of Francis Poulenc: the satisfying but astringent sonorities, the sudden shifts of harmony, and the extreme deference to the natural shapes of words and phrases all recall the music of his better-appreciated associate. But Milhaud's works in the genre are more challenging in sound, more complex in their voicing, and, in religious texts, lacking the sentimental piety that informed so much of Poulenc's writing; in its place is a more purely musical, more detached, reverence. Layton and the NCC present a varied selection of works, including Milhaud's choral cantata Cantique du Rhône, his singular Naissance de Vénus (Birth of Venus), three Psalm settings, and four settings from biblical scripture. The NCC takes the frequently shifting and disjointed harmonies in stride, rarely singing with anything but solid intonation. Their sound, combining a rich complement of male voices and an unusually pure, but rarely strident, soprano section, suits the music well. Layton seems to grasp Milhaud's style and expressive intentions perfectly, finding ways to clarify the busy textures and dense harmonies into clear, immediately comprehensible phrases.

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