The famous piano duo Scaramouche (1937) was arranged from incidental music Milhaud had composed for Molière’s Le médecin volant. In the version Milhaud created for his friends Marcelle Meyer and Ida Jankelevitch, it soon became one of the cornerstones of the piano duo repertoire. On the aforementioned Ian Hobson CD there is an unexciting performance of Scaramouche with Claude Hobson at the second piano. The opening movement is particularly stiff. Diametrically opposed is the interpretation by Christian Ivaldi and Noël Lee (EMI (Pathé) CDM 7 69854-2) which really bounces, but sounds almost out of control; both pianists land on strong beats so hard it makes one wince. Works for piano(s) and/or orchestra – Le carnaval d’Aix (1926), Suite provençale (1936), Suite française (1944), Le bal martiniquais (1944), and Paris (1948) – complete the disc, which unfortunately is not readily available in this country.
The best recent performance of Scaramouche is that of Katia and Marielle Labèque (Philips 426 284-2, recorded 1989). The opening movement, “Vif,” is dazzlingly fast, almost mechanical-sounding. The lyrical “Modéré” begins matter-of-factly but soon acquires a nostalgic loveliness. In the final movement, “Brazileira, mouvement de Samba,” the Labèques bewitch the listener, beginning at a near-whisper, building in volume and intensity throughout the first statement of the theme, evoking a Mardi Gras band approaching from beyond a hill. Purists will point out that this effect is achieved by adding six measures at the beginning of the movement (the first two measures played three extra times, twice omitting the first piano, left hand). As the movement progresses, the Labèques interpret like crazy, adding lots of jazzy slurs, articulations and ornaments. They take a great many liberties, most of them welcome. Piano works by Poulenc comprise the bulk of this fine disc.
Milhaud himself recorded Scaramouche in 1938 with Marcelle Meyer. This interpretation, included in the Classical Collector anthology, remains the most masterly, relaxed yet incisive and crisp, the slow second movement more eloquent than any other performance to date. Milhaud and Meyer’s spirit is appreciatively evoked, however, in Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther’s 1992 Scaramouche on Sonpact (SPT 92004 M7 865). This disc also includes a fine performance of Le bal Martiniquais, three movements from the ballet Les songes in a keyboard reduction, Suite concertante, Concertino d’automne and the Fantaisie pastorale. Sonpact’s thin, tinny sound detracts from the pleasures of Pleshakov and Winther’s astute pianism; they deserve better.
Several discs include the popular alto saxophone and piano arrangement of Scaramouche. On “Hot Sax” (Bayer BR 100 098 CD) Jürgen Demmler and Peter Grabinger give it a stiff, effortful-sounding reading, together with works by Jean Françaix, Erwin Schulkoff and Phil Woods. On “The French Saxophone” (Bis CD-209) Pekka Savijoki and Margit Rahkonen give a much better performance, suave and highly nuanced in the first two movements, although the third sounds rushed. Their disc is rounded out with works by Françaix (the wonderful Cinq danses exotiques, also on “Hot Sax”), Ibert, André Jolivet, Roger Boutry and Paule Maurice. As good as the Savijoki disc is, no saxophone rendition can equal a good performance of the original version. Even less satisfactory is a 1987 live performance of the saxophone and orchestra version on Praga 250 013. The piece loses its weightlessness in this arrangement, and it gets no lift from saxophonist Sohre Neidenbach-Rahbari and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Alexander Rahbari. Somewhat better is the clarinet and orchestra arrangement in a performance by Eduard Brunner with the Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Urs Schneider on a disc entitled “Hommage à Benny Goodman,” recorded in 1989 (Koch Schwann 3-1035-2). Here the playing is top-notch, the orchestra almost as good as the soloist, but the arrangement still lacks the percussive lightness of the original. Ultimately, the transcription itself cannot overcome the limited register of the wind instruments, which must jump awkwardly up or down the octaves to complete the long melodic lines of the original.