Milhaud’s great early ballet, Le boeuf sur le toit (1919, scenario by Cocteau), is one of his most protean pieces, with different dissonances and rhythms emerging in each recording. On a Leonard Bernstein recording with the Orchestre National de France (EMI CDC-7 47845 2), the sound is very sleek and glitzy, like a good pops orchestra or Broadway pit band. Lush, polished string textures and mock-sentimental phrasing initially help to emphasize the roughhouse parody aspects of the piece, but the joke soon wears thin. There seems to be a cultural misunderstanding at work here and the results sound Americanized, a little like faux Gershwin (or faux Bernstein). Rubati and tempo changes are exaggerated, leading to an unfortunate sense of overcontrol. One initially finds the performance refreshingly varied; it soon comes to seem artificially segmented and overemphatic.
Far better is a performance by Yan Pascal Tortelier with the Ulster Orchestra (Chandos 9023, recorded 1991). The pace is brisker than Bernstein’s, and the music thrives under this approach. Tortelier and the Ulster players have staked a solid claim to the modern French repertoire with recordings of Debussy, Ravel and others. The orchestra’s soloists really shine here, especially the trumpet, oboe, bassoon and flute, and the string group has a wonderful unanimity, with exciting crescendi and accelerandi. Most important of all, the Brazilian rhythms are persuasively handled by this Irish group.
An electrifying performance of Le boeuf sur le toit has recently been issued on the Praga label, distributed by Harmonia Mundi. This new imprint has issued four Milhaud centenary CDs, titling the volumes “The Musician of the Twenties,” “The `Lyric’ Musician,” “Milhaud in Prague,” and “The Musician of the Rhône” (Praga PR 250 007, 250 008, 250 012 and 250 013, respectively). These discs, the only ones specifically issued to honor the anniversary of the composer, consist of live and studio recordings, made for the most part in Prague, all between 1957 and 1990. They provide a good introduction to Milhaud’s oeuvre, and most of the renditions are very fine. In the case of Le boeuf sur le toit, the live 1989 performance, by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Libor Pesek, is delirious with pleasure, as if the players had learned of their liberation that very day (and perhaps they had). As one might expect of a live recording, there are occasional clams in the oboe, horn, etc., but overall the ensemble precision and the level of playing are astounding, from the shuffle of the guiro and tambourine, to the eager, optimistic trumpet, to the special warmth of the Bohemian string and clarinet sound. If you can sit still while listening to this, you really ought to see a doctor.
As good as the Prague performance is, however, there is an even better one, just released on the Hyperion label (CDA66594). On this all-Milhaud disc, recorded in January 1992, Ronald Corp and the New London Orchestra give an intensely focused, detailed view of the score that is wonderfully lively and spirited. Corp’s opening tempo is nearly as slow as Bernstein’s, and he indulges in just as many rubati and tempo changes, but with absolute fidelity to the score. Where Pesek’s performance is all ecstasy, Corp’s is all desire; his slower tempi produce the most seductive Latin rhythms of any recording. Given the chamber music detail of Corp’s interpretation (and Hyperion’s excellent sound reproduction) all the players really glow, both as individuals and as section members. The solo flute/piccolo, oboe, bassoon, horn, and trumpet are saucy, wistful and haunting in turn. Every nuance of the score is highlighted perfectly. This is the only recording in which the plucked first violins and violas at rehearsal letter “R” actually sound like a banjo, a great dancehall effect. Corp and the New London Orchestra are a real find. The liner notes, by Robert Matthew-Walker, are a better introduction to Milhaud than most of the articles and books on the composer.
Of all Milhaud’s works, Le boeuf sur le toit probably survives transcription better than any other. In 1919, when the work was still new, Milhaud made an arrangement for violin with orchestra or piano, under the title Cinéma-fantaisie (conceived as a possible soundtrack for a Chaplin silent film). Both settings of this version were premiered in 1921 by the violinist René Bénédetti, with an added cadenza by Arthur Honegger. Bénédetti’s performance of excerpts from this arrangement is now available on a fascinating three-CD set, “Darius Milhaud, enregistrements historiques, 1928-1948” on the Classical Collector label (150 122, released in 1992). This set is a treasury of superb renditions of Milhaud’s music by the performers he loved best, often with the composer himself playing or conducting. In the case of the Cinéma-fantaisie, the excerpted performance by Bénédetti with Jean Wiéner at the piano is full of fire and technically almost flawless. The sound is extraordinary for a 1928 recording. An excellent four-hand piano rendition of Le boeuf sur le toit by Philippe Corre and Edouard Exerjean was released in 1986 (Pierre Verany PV 786 091). This version, which opens at a breakneck pace, successfully brings out the crazy rhythms and anarchic spirit of the piece. It is paired with good performances of Scaramouche and Carnaval à la Nouvelle-Orléans and is hard to find in this country, but well worth looking for.
Some graphical elements on this and following pages courtesy of the Performing Arts Collection, UCI Libraries, which provided Modern Swedish Ballet by Bengt Nils Hager both as an exhibition catalogue with attached color plates (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1970) and as a book (New York: M.H. Abrams, 1990).