The most comprehensive collection of historic Milhaud performances to date is The Classical Collector (150 122) (Archives Sonores de la Phonotèque Nationale). This three-CD set includes most of the recordings made by Milhaud and his best friends and interpreters in Paris and Brussels between 1928 and 1948, transfered to digital sound and admirably restored. Though limited to the shorter selections recorded on the 78 rpm format of the period, this set is particularly rich in vocal works that testify to Milhaud’s natural gift for text setting, vocal drama, and singable melody.
Among the best of these performances is Martial Singher’s moving account of Quatre chansons populaires hébraiques (1925), an impressive cycle not available on modern recording. In setting traditional Eastern European Jewish folksongs for solo voice and piano Milhaud preserved most features of the original melodies, but drove them in more modern directions with angular left-hand figures and dissonant chords, recalling the great Britten settings of traditional English and Scottish songs. Accompanied by Milhaud, Singher’s dignified baritone honors the songs’ elemental strength.
The Classical Collector also includes a number of great performances by Jane Bathori with Milhaud at the keyboard, from a series of 1928-29 studio recordings of varied technical quality. Her extraordinary expressiveness, humor and delicacy illumines three of Milhaud’s eight Poèmes juifs (1916) heard here. The original melodies accompanying these anonymous Jewish poems are freer of form than the Chansons populaires hébraiques and have a relaxed sensuality about them, free of the tension between new and old materials.
Bathori’s witty account of excerpts from Les soirées de Pétrograd (1919) with settings by René Chalupt, are muffled somewhat by the 1928 recording. The first six songs portray the foibles of characters from Russia’s “Ancien Régime” followed by a dreamlike group of post-revolutionary scenarios like “La Limousine,” in which a Rolls Royce is quietly dumping Rasputin into the Neva amid the sound of church bells. This cycle is decidedly Satiesque in flavor, as are the alternately impish and poignant Trois poèmes de Jean Cocteau (1920) that follow. Milhaud’s affection for Satie and his music are apparent in his consummate recording with Bathori of Satie’s Trois Mélodies (1916) also included here.
The Classical Collector set also reflects the influence of poet-diplomat Paul Claudel, whose translations from Aeschylus’ Oresteia Milhaud set to make groundbreaking theater music and opera. Of the 1928-29 recordings of the Chorale Caecilia d’Anvers under Louis de Vocht, the best are excerpts from Les choéphores (1915), with Claire Croiza heading the cast. (This operatic mezzo became one of the great “mélodie” interpreters and teacher to Hugues Cuenod and Gérard Souzay.) In “Exhortation” Croiza doubles as “récitante,” her furious musical speech, accompanied only by percussion, a tour de force. (This piece is clearly ancestor to La mort d’un tyran.)
Against such high drama, Classical Collector sets Milhaud’s clever trilogy of nine-minute operas, Trois opéras-minute (1927).