Milhaud’s stature as a master orchestrator is apparent in current concerto recordings. Of these, the greatest gem is the Concerto no. 1 for cello (1934) in a superb performance by Mstislav Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano (Erato 2292 45489-2). The first movement, “Nonchalant,” opens with a brief prelude much like a Bach cello suite, when without warning, the main theme enters with an astonishingly broad, Falstaffian swagger. The deeply serious second movement is followed by a rambunctious and virtuosic third. Rostropovich is at the peak of his art throughout. The disc also includes concerti by Honegger and Alun Hoddinott.
Similarly, startling contrasts of mood are to be heard in Nagano’s fine recording of the Concerto for harp with the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon (Erato Musifrance 2292-45820-2). Soloist Frédérique Cambreling plays with a bright, percussive tone and supple pharasing. This admirable performance is unevenly matched with a disappointing Boeuf sur le toit and a great Création du monde, the best new recording of the ballet to appear in years.
The best single disc of historic orchestral performances features violinist Louis Kaufman (Music and Arts CD-620), conducted by Milhaud with pianist Artur Balsam. Included here is the sunny Concertino de printemps (1934), the dramatic Concerto no. 2 for violin (1946), and the Latin-tinged Danses de Jacarémirim (1945), together with pieces by Poulenc and Sauguet. A less impressive Concertino de printemps with Yvonne Astruc appears on a historic compilation of Milhaud and Honegger works conducted by the composers (Pearl GEMM CD 9459) and includes La création du monde, the Concerto no. 1 for piano (1933) with Marguerite Long, and excerpts from the charming ballet Les songes (1933). The “historic” sound quality on these recordings is inferior to the Music and Arts disc, and though the selections are well worth hearing, they are all available in the more comprehensive Classical Collector set.
Le carnaval d’Aix (1926), a buoyant, crowdpleasing concerto for piano and orchestra made from parts of the 1924 ballet Salade, is available in four fine recordings. Michel Béroff’s version with Georges Prêtre leading the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo (EMI (Pathé) CDM 7 69854-2) has dazzlingly fleet fast movements, but it is in the moonlit lyricism of the slow movements that this performance shines brightest. Another fine rendition is on the Praga label centenary disc “The Musician of the Twenties,” with Josef Hála and the Prague Symphony Orchestra under Jindrich Rohan. This 1977 performance takes more comfortable tempi in the fast movements and an amiable attitude throughout, but it lacks the idiomatic flair that comes naturally to the Monte-Carlo players. Also in their native element are the Orchestre de Cannes-Provence Alpes-Côte d’Azur under Philippe Bender, with pianist Riccardo Caramella (Nuova Era 7130). Outsparkling even Milhaud’s compatriots, however, are Ronald Corp and the New London Orchestra (Hyperion CDA66595, a uniformly excellent Milhaud collection).
Milhaud’s Concertino d’hiver for trombone and strings (1953) gives the ugly duckling of the orchestra a surprisingly sylvan grace. The concertino is ably executed by Zdenek Pulec with Jaroslav Krombholc conducting the Prague Radio Symphony in a 1976 performance on Praga 250 012 (in the Milhaud centenary series). Jean Douay and the Orchestre Régional under Philippe Bender give the piece a more fluid, contemporary sound on their new disc (Nuova Era 7130).