Life is a cafe cabaret
by Tim Pfaff
There are many ways to measure an artist's range or versatility. As I was preparing to write this review of pianist Alexandre Tharaud's latest CD, Le Boeuf sur Le Toit (Virgin Classics), I caught his stunning appearance as himself in Michael Haneke's Cannes Palme d'Or-winning film Amour . Besides lending some exquisite Schubert and a bit of a Beethoven Bagatelle to the film, Tharaud was completely believable as a concert pianist whose career was peaking on a visit to an elderly, now failing teacher. The character's happiness, and Tharaud's enormous personal appeal, are the single bright spot in this otherwise unrelievedly sober if transfixing film.
On Le Boeuf sur Le Toit, Tharaud is back to his day job as an off-screen pianist, best-known for his many Chopin recordings, although his range in the classical repertoire is also great. He's enlisted a group of musician friends who together make this one of the most thoroughly enjoyable recordings of fringe classical music since the heyday of Joan Morris and William Bolcom.
Le Boeuf sur Le Toit takes its title from the name of the roaringest cafe cabaret in Paris during the Roaring 20s, which in turn took its name from a 1920 ballet (English title The Ox on the Roof) by Darius Milhaud. Tout le demimonde of that cultural highwater, now nearly a century older but aging like the best French wines, passed through the doors of the bar, and all manner of music – most of it flavored by that American thing called jazz, though no one on either side of the Atlantic knew quite how to define it – was performed there. In another salute to variety, Tharaud's exquisitely well-programmed CD captures it all.
As if to help his regular audience in the door, Tharaud opens with the solo-piano "Chopinata," a "fantasy foxtrot on themes by Chopin" by Clement Doucet, the Belgian pianist-composer who was one of the masters of ceremony at what was also known as the Nothing-Doing Bar. Tharaud's deft, light-as-air feel for the idiom lets you know from the start that this is not that most hazardous of classical-musician projects, the crossover recording. The pianist says that this music has been in his veins since childhood, and that's how it sounds. As a solo musician he is of a caliber with his countryman Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose recordings of Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, and Gershwin are among the finest things he has done.
There are more classical spoofs in "Hungaria" (Liszt) and "Isoldina" (Wagner), but the CD goes into another gear altogether immediately after the Liszt parody when singer Madeleine Peyroux joins Tharaud for a sultry run-through of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It." No discredit to his solo playing, which cavorts behind one gauzy-thin veil of inhibition, but he comes even more alive as a jammer – fitting, since the French expression for musical jamming is faire le boeuf, itself a reference to the bar.
Things turn unmistakably French when singer Juliette joins Tharaud for "J'ai pas su y faire," one of the signature tunes of Yvonne George, the great chanteuse of the era. Jean Delescluse's biting rendering of "Caramel mou," the "shimmy movement" by Jean Cocteau and Milhaud, takes us to the edge of the emotional abyss that gave the decade between the end of WWI and the American stock market crash its unique frisson.
Natalie Dessay contributes a pungent account of the wordless voice-as-instrument "Blues chante," and Benabar responds with a "Gonna Get a Girl" ("Because I've never had a girl, that's why I'm going to get a girl") with an almost vehement sexual ambiguity. All the musicians, who include the requisite banjo player (David Chevaler) and a-la-Cocteau percussionist (Florent Jodelet), join for a lusty operetta excerpt, "Henri, pourquoi n'amies pas les femmes?" ("Henry, Why Don't You Love Women?")
For pianophiles, the main action may be in the series of four duets Tharaud plays with Frank Braley. Jean Wiener, the "musical soul" of Le Boeuf, joined with Clement Doucet later in the decade for piano duos that, besides increasing the repertoire for duo-piano enormously, eventually made Wiener and Doucet a traveling musical act of a public success comparable to Liszt's. Tharaud and Braley recapture the magic.
In one of the CD's farthest-out moments, Tharaud plays "St. Louis Blues" in Wiener's harpsichord arrangement on a period-appropriate Pleyel harpsichord. And there's an excerpt from Milhaud's ballet that gives its name to everything in a solo-piano version, and for the pedigree-addicted, another from Ravel's still-too-little-known opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges .
Martin Penet adds a long, luscious liner note on the bar, the musical epoch, and the individual items on the CD. With championship the likes of which Tharaud and friends give on this bewitching CD, others may well follow.