La création du monde, the 1923 jazz ballet for eighteen instruments (originally performed with sets by Fernand Léger) is, of all Milhaud’s works, the one with the firmest footing in the repertoire. Of the numerous available recordings the oldest is a 1932 performance conducted by the composer (Pearl Gemm CD 9459). Needless to say, this release has its technical problems, including balance inequities (muted, distant trumpets, some very prominent percussion). A few of the soloists, such as the bassist at the beginning of the fugue, are not up to their tasks, and the percussionists are not always reliable. But this is an interesting historical document, with judicious, relaxed tempi, and a lively, irreverent feeling. The very precariousness of some of the ensemble work gives this performance some of the spontaneity of a jam session that the other renditions lack. Other orchestral works of Milhaud, and some by Honegger, conducted by the composers, round out this generous disc. Milhaud’s account of La création is also available on the Classical Collector set.
Another historical performance, this one by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has recently been reissued on disc by RCA (Gold Seal 60685-2). The string sound is a little muddy, probably the result of using full string sections, rather than the original quartet of two violins, cello and bass. But the Boston percussionists perform with terrific ensemble precision, and the tempi are apt, with a fairly brisk opening pace similar to Milhaud’s own. In the final, competitive Dixieland brawl the prominent trumpets are nothing short of amazing for their staccato repeated passages. The hushed closing chords are beautifully serene. The disc is filled out with a performance of Milhaud’s Suite provençale and two symphonies by Honegger.
Bernstein’s performance of La création du monde has little to recommend it. This reading, paired with Le boeuf sur le toit and four of the Saudades do Brasil (orchestrated by Milhaud) is neither tight nor swinging. There are moments of brightness, such as the return to the opening tempo, but the playing has a “professional” (lifeless) quality about it. The opening moments are flaccid and dispirited and the recording quality is mushy throughout. A 1986 performance by Ian Hobson and the Sinfonia da Camera (Arabesque Z6569) is somewhat better despite a similarly funereal opening, salvaged here by a smooth, sinuous quality. The opening of the fugue, however, is too slow, and the jazzy, hot passages at the end are served up tepid. But the clarinet and percussion, and most of the ensemble work, are good.
Among the best older performances is that of Georges Prêtre with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, recorded in 1961 (EMI CDM 7 63945 2). This version has tempo problems (too slow at the beginning, too fast toward the end) and some strange balances (percussion and contrabass too prominent). The jazz trick of playing just a little behind the beat is overdone by the percussion. But there are moments of delicate beauty and some wonderful playing, especially from the flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet and trombone, and from the contrabass at the beginning of the jazz fugue. The disc is completed with performances of Poulenc’s effervescent Les biches and Henri Dutilleux’s Le loup. An excellent recent performance of Création is that of Tortelier and the Ulster Orchestra on the disc mentioned earlier. This is one of the best available performances, very smooth, with all-round good playing and tempi. Oboe, flute, piano and percussion are standouts here, along with the clarinet and saxophone soloists, and the recording quality is excellent. In addition to the two Milhaud pieces, Tortelier’s CD includes fine performances of Poulenc’s Les biches (with more sparkle than in Prêtre’s recording) and Ibert’s Divertissement.
Without a doubt the best Création is that of The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble under Arthur Weisberg (Elektra/Nonesuch 71281-2; also on cassette). The only recording that sounds as irreverent and jazzy as Milhaud’s own, this is also the tightest, most proficient rendition, with snappy parade rolls in the snare drum and great ensemble playing. The group is studded with such luminaries as Gilbert Kalish at the piano and Fred Sherry on cello. But Arthur Bloom steals the show with burbling clarinet solos that have more than a touch of vaudeville about them. The disc also includes William Bolcom’s Frescoes, as well as a good, dirty rendering of Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik.