Classical: Alexandre Tharaud’s bullish proposal

Alexandre Tharaud. Photo: Marco Borggreve
Alexandre Tharaud. Photo: Marco Borggreve
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The decadence of 1920s Paris is captured in a new, anarchic collaboration by pianist Alexandre Tharaud centred on a strangely named nightclub

ON SATURDAY, as part of Glasgow’s Piano Month, we will see a side to French pianist Alexandre Tharaud that is the flipside of the musical persona of his latest Virgin Classics album. For while his Strathclyde Suite programme at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall is largely about the standard classical repertoire, encompassing Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, Ravel’s Miroirs and sonatas by Scarlatti, his newly released collaborative CD – Le Bœuf sur le Toit – inhabits the smoky, decadent abandon of “gai Paris” in the 1920s.

It’s that latter obsession that defines an original streak in Tharaud, stemming from his childhood fascination with the recordings of legendary composers and cabaret piano duo Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet, the tales of his grandfather who played violin in the cafés and dance halls of 1920s Paris, and from his belief that one particular historic cabaret bar – Le Bœuf sur le Toit – was, by the eclectic and salubrious nature of its clientele, hugely influential in shaping the sensual landscape of French classical music after the First World War.

The list of patrons who frequented Le Bœuf says it all – writer and joint founder of the establishment Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Maurice Chevalier, Stravinsky, and the anti-Wagner/Debussy mob known as Les Six, chief among them being Darius Milhaud whose jazzy pantomime ballet Le bœuf sur le toit (based on a Brazilian carnival hit song he picked up in Rio de Janeiro in 1917) was to provide the venue with its enigmatic name (which translates roughly as “the bull on the roof”).

“It’s a moment in musical history that I feel passionate about, and wanted to pay tribute to in this new recording,” Tharaud says “And it’s from the name of the club that the phrase ‘faire le bœuf’ came, meaning ‘to have a jam session’.”

To make it happen, Tharaud enlisted a broad spectrum of collaborators to “faire le bœuf” with him in what he terms “a crazy project”, encompassing music as diverse as cheeky foxtrot versions of Chopin and Liszt, distilled Milhaud (the composer’s brief transcription of his own Le bœuf), songs by Gershwin and Cole Porter, a thoroughly camp “novelty piano solo” by Doucet on themes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, to those scorching, original piano duos of Wiéner and Doucet themselves, painstakingly transcribed from sound archives by Tharaud.

The result is intoxicating, in that no track is without its individually fresh quirks. American jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux cuts a sexy, suave version of Porter’s Let’s Do It…; French operatic coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay is hauntingly ethereal in the strange vocalisations of Wiéner’s Blues chanté; Jean Delescluse spins out the whimsical vocals in Cocteau’s and Milhaud’s 1921 collaboration Caramel mou; French chanson artists Bénabar and the Edith Piaf-like Juliette add a husky, steamy quality to night club songs; and there’s even a tap dance accompaniment (yes, on CD!) to Paul Segnitz’s Poppy Cock.

And how strange is Tharaud’s harpsichord version of the Saint Louis Blues, the athletic foxtrot banjo playing of David Chevalier, a two-and-a-half minute cabaret operetta, Louis XIV, featuring the voices of all the contributors (Tharaud included), all set intriguingly, but not incongruously, alongside a piano-arranged extract from Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges?

That’s the thing about this wildly diverse disc. Its manic incongruity – held together by Tharaud’s versatile and omnipresent piano playing – is clearly intended to conjure up the “anything goes” spirit that was the lifeblood of the original Bœuf sur le Toit.

That’s not something you can physically experience these days. “The name still exists in the same district of Paris near the Madeleine. But it’s now an expensive restaurant, and not a very good one,” says Tharaud. “It’s very different from the days when all Paris’s young artists and intellectuals came every night to discuss American jazz and hear the best jazzmen.”

As for the impact the club had on French musical style, its regular patronage by so many leading composers made sure that happened.

“Ravel visited Le Bœuf practically every night. It’s where he discovered jazz, where he learnt to understand it, and you only have to look at his two piano concertos to realise how important an inspiration jazz was to have his music.”

If there was an element of hero worship guiding Tharaud’s hand through this recording project, it was surely his unqualified admiration for the lesser-known Wiéner, whose chief job it was to dazzle the Le Bœuf’s clients with his pianism, and to get them up dancing in a way that fuelled the electrifying energy of the club.

In particular, it was Wiéner’s enthusiasm for American jazz that got the joint jumping; that introduced the music of Gershwin and Cole Porter to Paris gatherings frequently counting Picasso, Gide or Chanel among their number; that, with the added enthusiasm of Cocteau, led to the likes of Poulenc, Stravinsky and all the other new-breed composers infusing their own music with streams of jazz that went way beyond the century’s earlier cross-fertilised examples of Debussy and Satie.

In the end, the interwar heyday of Le Bœuf sur le Toit was as much a flash in the pan as the Roaring 20s. The jealousy of other night club owners led to them snitching on Le Bœuf’s tendency to flout Paris’ late licensing laws. It moved location several times, running out of steam as the economy dipped after the 1929 Wall Street Crash. It struggled on to 1941, but never regained the thrills of its early days.

Tharaud has no plans to play any of the music on his CD in Glasgow this week, though who knows – an impromptu encore might not be out of the question. But he is including a significant piano transcription of his own – a version only recently completed of Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony.

“It was a difficult exercise, as Mahler’s music is very, very slow, and the durational sound of the piano is short. I’ve had to add in many extra notes, but they have to be played very quietly, very calmly,” he said in advance of premiering the transcription in Belgium last week. “I’m waiting to see the audience reaction. I won’t know how successful it is until I know what that reaction will be.”

Sounds just like the adventurous spirit that made Le Bœuf the place to be back in 1920s Paris.

•  Alexander Tharaud perfoms at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s Strathclyde Suite on 17 November. His latest CD, Le Bœuf sur le Toit – Swinging Paris is out now on Virgin Classics.