A CD at full price with little more than 30 minutes duration? Well, this is something rather special for collectors. If like me you’ve known and loved these pieces through recordings such as that on EMI conducted by Leonard Bernstein – also recorded with a pungently expressive French orchestra – then you will certainly be curious as to how the composer himself conducted these works.
With Le boeuf sur le toit, Milhaud leaps out at us from behind the curtains with theatrical verve, keeping up a high tempo in the more lyrical sections where Bernstein has a tendency to stretch and pull things around more. This immanent urgency brings the work in at a good 3 minutes under Bernstein’s timing. The orchestral playing is tremendously vital, and even with a certain amount of distortion at peaks and one or two audible edits, this is a performance to which you just have to move about. The subtitle Cinema-Symphonie was never more appropriate than here, with the mind constantly conjuring images of hobbling donkeys, brash and colourful South American characters, dusty days and sultry nights.
La création du monde is full of heartbreakingly beautiful and thrilling music, and if you don’t know it you must go out and find yourself a recording as soon as possible. Bernstein’s version is my favourite. There is another one on the Naxos label with the Orchestre National de Lille (see review) which is OK, but doesn’t have quite the emotional impact of either Bernstein or the present recording sous la direction de l’Auteur. That saxophone solo in the beginning just has to be played with plenty of eloquent vibrato, which we find with both Bernstein and Milhaud. Detail in the recording is better with Bernstein as you would expect, and you have to put up with that distortion as well at times with the present disc. The André Charlin release doesn’t go in for information about mastering or sources, though as the original engineer one has to assume these are taken from master tapes. There is a little hiss on the recording which is no problem at all, though the emphasis is more on the treble in terms of balance. Milhaud doesn’t obtain quite the jazzy swing Bernstein obtains during all that counterpoint which develops in the first five minutes or so, and with a thinner bass presence the embrace of the pedal tones and bass lines over which the harmonies turn and grow is more distant and less effective. The percussion section of the Champs Elysées orchestra seems to suffer collective anticipatory rush-itis, and one can sense their collective heads buried in their parts, the poor conductor cast adrift after each initial cue. Bernstein’s control in this department is most certainly superior. All of this taken into consideration, there is a magic about this performance which transcends technical criticisms, and it has to be said, this is a unique document which breathes the same air and generates a similar atmosphere of adventure and discovery as some of Stravinsky’s original recordings, and as such deserves a similar status.
These are not to be confused with the mono recordings Milhaud made with the Concert Arts Orchestra in 1954 which are now available on EMI. There are great things on that CD (CDC 7 54604 2 also in the Composers in Person box), and while the recording of La création du monde is definitely inferior the Champs Elysées recording Le boeuf sur le toit sneaks in as the last track, so it has to be worth considering. If you already have a favourite version of these pieces and aren’t turned on by the historical resonances and irreplaceable sense or time and place generated by this kind of recording, then this is probably not going to be worth your while given the price. If however you seek that gritty feel of a period performance under the directorship of the composer, then this is the genuine article.