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 Recording of the Week  Alexandre Tharaud: Le Boeuf sur le toit

One of the great pleasures of my job is the occasional invitation to launch concerts and showcase recitals, and today I want to share a little bit about a magical evening I spent at Somerset House last week, courtesy of our colleagues at EMI and Virgin. I’ve long been a big admirer of the quirkily eloquent French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, having got to know his playing through his discs of Scarlatti and Couperin (for me, he’s one of the most persuasive advocates for French baroque repertoire performed on the piano), but on Monday night he was in London to fly the flag for something very different and clearly very close to his heart.

Alexandre Tharaud
Alexandre Tharaud

His latest recital-disc, Le Boeuf sur le Toit (‘The Ox on the Roof’), is a joyous compendium of the various genres which thrived and cross-fertilised in the famous Parisian nightclub of the same name. ‘Le Boeuf’ flourished during the 1920s and gave its name to Darius Milhaud’s famous ballet (not, as I’d always thought, the other way around!). Milhaud was a regular, as was pretty much anyone who was anyone in Parisian society at the time. Writers (Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, André Gide), visual artists (Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel) and of course musicians of various flavours (from Satie, Stravinsky and Ravel to Josephine Baker and Charlie Chaplin) all got together there to share new sources of inspiration from Existentialism to Cubism to Primitivism and – most importantly – jazz. Having read everything I could get my hands on about the club this week, I’m now firmly convinced by Tharaud’s assertion that “without ‘Le Boeuf’, French music just wouldn’t have been the same”.

As Tharaud explains in his excellent booklet-note, the expression ‘faire le boeuf’ – ‘have a jam session’ – is now common currency in France, and he has invited a fantastically diverse cross-section of friends to ‘jam’ with him here. On the classical side, we have Natalie Dessay (who joins him for a bluesy vocalise which requires the ‘singer’ to use a buzzy, saxophone-like timbre) and the French pianist Frank Braley, who is the second pair of hands for four blinding piano duets by Jean Wiener and Clément Doucet. (Like John Wilson, whom I wrote about a few weeks back, Tharaud has painstakingly transcribed much of this music from old 78s, as by its very nature much of it wasn’t written down, much less published.)

The elusive jazz diva Madeleine Peyroux (often compared to Billie Holiday) contributes a smokily understated ‘Let’s Do It’, whilst the louche Maurice Chevalier number ‘Gonna get a girl’ is delivered with insouciant charm by the celebrated chanteur Bénabar, Tharaud’s childhood friend and a gigantic star in his native France.

The repertoire, too, blurs boundaries, juxtaposing ‘classical’ works such as the foxtrot from Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with jazz standards like ‘Yes sir, that’s my baby’ and witty, affectionate ‘fantasy-foxtrots’ on themes by Liszt, Chopin and Wagner. Cross-over? Certainly, but brimming with style, coherence and integrity!

To describe this record as the ultimate in classy background music is to do it a disservice (the performances are mesmerising, and easily compelling enough to command your undivided attention in a single sitting), but really this is a disc that cries out to be enjoyed with a group of friends, great conversation and a bottle or two of something delicious. Enough from me: I’m off to dig out some Camus, pour myself a pastis and perhaps plan a little trip to Paris in the springtime to visit ‘Le Boeuf’ in its new incarnation on the Rue du Colisée. Merci, Monsieur Tharaud, for the inspiration!

Alexandre Tharaud: Le Boeuf sur le toit

Alexandre Tharaud, Jean Delescluse, Bénabar, Juliette/Guillaume Gallienne, Frank Braley, Natalie Dessay & Madeleine Peyroux

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC