Suite provençale remains one of Milhaud’s most popular and oft-recorded pieces. Based partly on themes by the minor Baroque master André Campra, and partly on folk tunes, this is a loving tribute to the part of the world Milhaud knew best. The Charles Munch recording (RCA Gold Seal 60685-2) is not at all bad, with the usual reliable playing by the Boston Symphony. A new recording by the Detroit Symphony under Neeme Järvi (Chandos 9072, 1992) is far less successful. Järvi has no feel for the Mediterranean character of the piece and his version sounds clumsy. The Detroit boasts some fine players, especially among the brass, and their Debussy and Roussel elsewhere on the disc are much better. Somewhat better than Järvi’s is the new recording by Michel Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse (paired with two symphonies reviewed above). The Toulouse players do well with the Suite, though the tempi are sometimes too fast to have much effect.
There is also a new performance of Suite provençale by Philippe Bender and the Orcheste Régional on their new disc (Nuova Era 7130). Surprisingly, given their Provencal credentials, these players tend to drag in the fast movements, but the slow movements are gorgeous. By far the best version is the 1963 performance by Serge Baudo with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Paris (Chant du Monde CDM LDC 278 1069). Here the players really exploit the wonders of Milhaud’s orchestration, and their enjoyment of the pungent colors and bouncy rhythms is infectious. Listen particularly to the Baroque overture rhythms (with Milhaud’s polytonal chord alterations), the woody timbre of the bassoons, and the wonderful fife and drum effects in the piccolo solos. Here, as is so often the case, Milhaud’s use of unpitched percussion is paradoxically melodic. As a bonus, this set includes the Introduction et marche funèbre (1936), as well as several great vocal works (reviewed above). Baudo’s tempi and phrasing are very close to those in Roger Désormière’s classic 1938 recording (in the Classical Collector set) with the added lustre of modern sound.