Top Ear

An Ideal Introduction to Milhaud

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Jeremy Lee writes

Darius Milhaud was an extremely prolific composer whose opus list ended at 443, and yet most of that large body of works have been largely forgotten.  Thanks to labels such as Naxos and CPO some works have received their long-due premiere recording (CPO in particular boasts cycles of Milhaud’s complete piano concertos and symphonies), and now that it is the 40th anniversary of his death some labels have resurrected out-of-print Milhaud recordings from their back catalogs.  But Milhaud still remains one of the lesser-programmed composers in concerts.  Hopefully after listening to these two discs you will feel as baffled by his neglect in the concert hall as I am.

Let me start with CD2 as the relatively more famous works are included here:  Le boeuf sur le toit and La creation du monde, conducted by Kent Nagano directing the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon.  Both works are given a sassy reading that captures the jazz idiom very well.  Le boeuf, basically a massive theme-and-variations that runs through most major and minor keys, has rarely sounded as coherent as Nagano paces the different variations very smartly without indulging in the slower variations inspired by Chôros melodies, as Bernstein did in his EMI recording now featured in the Great Recording of the Century series.  La creation du monde, for chamber orchestra and a solo saxophone, is similarly accomplished:  the angular fugue is filled with nervous kinetic energy–Bernstein to these ears is a bit too laid back–and the hesitantly sweet ending has rarely sound more erotic.  The Lyon orchestra plays this music extremely well:  strings and woodwinds (especially clarinets) are all very characterful, though I noticed some technical instability in the brass at times.  Yet I have a personal preference for Bernstein as in some details he is preferable to Nagano (such as the really sultry opening of La Creation, and the more characterful percussion playing in Le boeuf).  What’s more, Bernstein plays the work for the fun of it, and ultimately its wackiness leaves a stronger impression as well as highlighting the madcap humor that is written into the work.  I advise you to get both Bernstein and Nagano.  The filler is a hilariously demented harp concerto, gorgeously played by Frédérique Cambreling.

CD1 includes some works for piano and orchestra, and that means Claude Heffler and David Robertson will have to be compared with the sonically and interpretively excellent newcomers on CPO (Korstick/Francis/SWR).  Le Carnaval d’Aix was introduced to me by Korstick and co., and I was struck by the catchy tunes and vibrant colors in this delicious collection of exotic dances.  You’ll find less of that effect in Heffler’s playing and Robertson’s conducting, not to mention the orchestra, is dutiful at best–the tango movement, for example, sultry and flexible under Francis, is rather foursquare and sexless under Robertson, owing to less prominent percussion and a stiff pulse (observe how Francis does a gradual accelerando while launching the faster “B” section).  The sonics are also too resonant to capture all of Milhaud’s interesting orchestral detail.  Fortunately the other piano and orchestra works that constitute the remainder of the disc are much more idiomatically performed; indeed, I think that the Piano Concerto No. 1’s performance is on a par with Korstick’s team.

There are some very strong performances on this two-fer, and some less convincing performances, but overall I find it very worth acquiring for the extremely smartly chosen repertoire and budget price.  I only wish that the Scaramouche, whether in its two-piano form or saxophone solo arrangement, were included, since the Brasiliera movement is so popular nowadays.  As it stands, and as an introduction to Milhaud, I can think of no better album.


  • Album name:  Milhaud:  Le carnaval d’Aix;  Le boeuf sur le toit;  La création du monde, Concertos pour piano, Concerto pour harpe
  • Performers:  Claude Helffer (piano);  David Robertson (conductor);  Orchestre National de France [CD2];  Frédérique Cambreling (harp);  Kent Nagano (conductor);  Orchestre de l’Opera de Lyon [CD1]
  • Label:  Erato Ultima 3984-21347-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  2:19:41

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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