‘Le Boeuf sur le Toit’ recreates 1920s Parisian Club

By Rebecca Schmid

The eclectic musical life of the brief but thriving ‘Roaring twenties’ continues to inspire a nostalgia that is all the more understandable given contemporary classical music’s reorientation toward popular idioms from techno to rock. The latest album of French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, Le Boeuf sur le Toit, sets out to recreate the acts of a cabaret bar that provided a hub for the cross-fertilization of jazz and classical, spawning the French expression “faire le boeuf” (to jam). Stravinsky, the members of Les Six, Picasso and Chanel count among the personalities to have hung out in the Parisian bar, named after a Cocteau-Milhaud ballet. Yet it was a little-known figure that, according to liner notes, provided the “soul of the club.” The pianist and film composer Jean Wiéner, one of the first French advocates for jazz in the aftermath of World War One, devised programs such as “concerts salades” featuring performances of Gershwin and Porter alongside the compositions of friends. The Belgian pianist Clément Doucet, who mostly made a living accompanying silent films, was a permanent fixture, joining Wiéner for four-hand routines.

Tharaud, having discovered these recordings as a young child, spent years transcribing their arrangements, for which no scores existed. He also met Wiéner at age eight. Much in the spirit of the original club, the pianist summoned several musician friends for his project, from the chanteuse Juliette to Nathalie Dessay. Frank Braley is Tharaud’s partner for the Wiéner-Doucet duos, which provide some of the album’s highlights. Gershwin’s Why do I Love You? has an infectious energy through the joie de vivre of its textures, seamlessly coordinated by the performers. Doucet’s solo riffs on works by Chopin, Liszt and Wagner also deserve to be better known. His dance-like spin on the Liebestod in Isoldina is especially refreshing in the midst of the deluge for Wagner’s bicentenary. Tharaud moves suavely from each contrasting piece of repertoire to the next, whether in the leisurely stroll of Wiéner’s Harlem, or in spritely musical theater accompaniment for Bénabar in Maurice Chevalier’s Gonna Get a Girl. The chansonnier’s French accent brings a touch of authenticity and charm to the mix. There are also homegrown musical numbers, such as an excerpt from the operetta Louis XIV featuring Guillaume Gallienne.

The ‘shimmy movement’ Caramel mou, a Cocteau-Milhaud collaboration, provides another rare gem with its fragile polytonality and lightly absurdist lyrics about taking advantage of a younger girl: “Prenez une jeunne fille/remplissez la de la glace et de gin…et rendez la à sa famille” (take a young girl/fill her up with ice cream and gin…and bring her back to her family). Jean Delescluse gives a performance conjuring the best French cabarets, with Florent Jodelet on percussion ranging from march-like snares to wood blocks evoking horse hooves. Just as priceless is Dessay’s cameo appearance in the soft, trompet-esque vocalising of Blues chanté, one of three such pieces Wiener wrote with instructions for the performer to treat the voice like a brass instrument. Madeleine Peyroux makes for a modern Ella Fitzgerald in Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, while David Chevallier’s banjo adds spirited twang to Tharaud’s rendition of the fox trot Collegiate. It is impossible to grow tired of this album as it unfolds, with its eclectic arrangement of repertoire unified by such a tight dramaturgical arc. Wiéner’s harpsichord transcription of Saint Louis Blues by William Christopher Handy, performed on a 1959 Pleyel instrument, provides yet another surprise with its refined contours of the blues classic. Tharaud has conceived a truly original project that entertains as it illuminates this small but rich piece of musical history.

Le Boeuf sur le Toit is available for purchase on Virgin Classics.


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