Milhaud’s piano music displays the same broad stylistic range as the rest of his opus. Especially in the earlier works, the gentle, eccentric Paris of Satie, Fauré and Ravel is audible, although Milhaud’s own robust personality always shines through. This is especially apparent in the brief selections played by Milhaud and his friend Marguerite Long on the Classical Collector historic set. In 1928 and 1930 Milhaud recorded four of his Saudades do Brasil (1920-21) and the first volume of his Printemps (1915-20) for Columbia. Milhaud’s Printemps is brisk, almost businesslike in the second and third movements. His Saudades excerpts are supple, jazzy and redolent of the tropics. In 1935 Marguerite Long recorded “Paysandu” (Saudades, No. 12) and “Alfama” (No. 2 of L’Automne, 1932), also for Columbia. Her “Paysandu” is similar in style to Milhaud’s Saudades interpretations. “Alfama” is terse and roughedged, displaying a Milhaud far more attuned to the dadaist Satie than the impressionist Fauré.
A good collection by Billy Eidi (Arcobaleno SBCD 5400) concentrates on the lyrical side of the piano works, including the Sonata No. 1 (1916), Printemps, L’automne, 4 esquisses (1941) and the Sonatina (1956). Even better is a set by William Bolcom, Milhaud’s prize pupil and a great pianist (Elektra/Nonesuch 9 71316-2). Printemps receives a more detached (and ultimately more affecting) reading here, stylistically about midway between Eidi’s and Milhaud’s. But what makes this collection indispensable are performances of the lush, sexy Saudades do Brasil and the Trois rag caprices (1922), in which Bolcom’s expertise in ragtime and other popular music styles is put to dazzling effect. Ian Hobson has a good performance of the Trois rag caprices on his mixed piano and ensemble CD mentioned above, but his tempi are less convincing than Bolcom’s. Hobson has concentrated on the jazzier side of Milhaud, sometimes with good results. His performances of the sparkling shimmy Caramel Mou (1920) and the Suite for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1936) are a pleasure.
A 1989 recording of Milhaud piano music by Martin Jones affords only limited interest. Jones gives credible performances of the Trois rag caprices and the early Suite pour le piano (1913), the latter in its first and only recording. But his Sonata No. 1 is not as ingratiating as Eidi’s version, and his Saudades is the least satisfactory rendition of the three available. A new recording of the Saudades by Antonio Barbosa (Connoisseur Society CD 4190) is well played and shows attention to structure but is less persuasive than Bolcom’s, with some odd tempi and dramatic flourishes. Barbosa’s Debussy (Préludes, Book Two) is far better than his Saudades. All in all, the Bolcom collection is the one to get.
Two recordings treat the orchestral transcription of Saudades do Brasil. On the aforementioned EMI disc, Bernstein and the Orchestre National de France play four of the dances, with the same underwhelming spirit they showed in the two ballets. Far better is a performance of the complete orchestral Saudades, including Milhaud’s added overture, by the Capella Cracoviensis under Karl Anton Rickenbacher. The Cracow group shows a keen grasp of the Latin rhythms, similar to Bolcom’s in the piano version. They fare less well with the Trois rag caprices, although the transcription itself also seems less felicitous. The disc (Koch Schwann 3-1138-2, recorded 1990) also includes Le carnaval de Londres for small orchestra.