The very idea of undertaking Darius Milhaud: Complete Piano Concertos as a single unit is a daunting one, as Milhaud's work for the combination of piano and orchestra encompasses an extremely broad range of styles, from Milhaud's frothiest neo-Classical concoctions to his densest, most experimental vein. Conductor/composer Alun Francis, nonetheless, has scored with the comprehensive treatment as applied to Milhaud's variegated oeuvre before, picking up a Cannes Classical Award at MIDEM in 2000 for his set of complete symphonies of Milhaud. This two-disc set is a more modest proposition, featuring pianist Michael Korstick in all of Milhaud's piano and orchestra works except the Suite Concertante (1947), an arrangement of Milhaud's Marimba & Vibraphone Concerto that like much of his work remains to be recorded.
If there's an argument to be made for further exploring the uninvestigated side of Milhaud's extensive output, CPO's Darius Milhaud: Complete Piano Concertos makes it pretty effectively, as the previously unrecorded works here are among the most compelling in the set. Milhaud's most famous piano and orchestra work is Carnival d'Aix, Op. 83b, played reasonably well here, but it's been done a little more sparklingly elsewhere, for example in Michel Béroff's recording with Georges Prêtre and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo for EMI Angel. The Ballade for piano and orchestra, Op. 61, is likewise done nicely, although there is a little confusion in the percussion parts. This is typical; this one-movement sketch is like a continuation of the theme that concludes Milhaud's L'Homme et son désir, and his multilayered percussion writing of that period is difficult to follow for typical orchestral percussionists. From a performance standpoint, the remaining works are fine and achieve the goal of making the most unfamiliar music clear and doing it justice. The First and Second concertos have been recorded before, the first, famously, with Marguerite Long and the second just one time before, with pianist Sari Biro way back in 1948.
That leaves the Third, Fourth, and Fifth concertos, and of these, the Third is truly a winner. Written under pressure from his manager and, as in the case of most of his concertos, for himself, Milhaud was forced to write something easy enough for him to play that was still convincingly virtuosic for concert use. Milhaud later admitted that he wrote it a little beyond his own ability, but it is certainly a fine concerto, with a deeply effective middle movement. The Fourth was composed for a pianist who wanted a concerto that was especially hard in order to show off his chops, and Milhaud complied -- it is a messy work that is not a lot of fun. To let Milhaud be Milhaud was the best plan of action as far as that was concerned, and the Fifth and final concerto locates him back in his element.
The Five Etudes for piano and orchestra, Op. 63 (1921), are among the weirdest, craziest pieces written by Milhaud or anyone else -- the third movement features four simultaneous fugues traveling at the same time. The Fantaisie Pastorale Op. 188, however, is the loveliest thing on this set, a transparent little slab of neo-Classical heaven that you regret is over once its 10 minutes are up. This is an example of the extremes of expression found within this two-disc set, and other than Carnival d'Aix and the Fourth concerto, all of the pieces reveal their virtues more completely on repeated listens. SWR's recording emphasizes the mid-range and doesn't have a lot of bottom, and in the works listing CPO has something wrong here -- the Second Piano Concerto is Op. 225, not Op. 228, which rightfully belongs to Milhaud's First Concerto for two pianos and orchestra.