Alexandre Tharaud

On travelling back to 1920s Paris

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud’s new recording is a tribute to the legendary Parisian cabaret ‘Le Boeuf sur le Toit’, opened in 1922 by Jean Cocteau. A regular haunt of composers, jazz musicians, chanteuses and dancers, the cabaret had a huge impact on 20th-century classical music. We spoke to Alexandre Tharaud about the establishment’s lasting influence.

Why did you decide to make this recording?
The 1920s in Paris was a very interesting time, and when I was 13 or 14 I bought a record called ‘Au temps du Boeuf sur le Toir’ – ‘At the Time of Le Boeuf sur le Toit’ – with recordings by the French pianist Jean Wiener and the Belgian pianist ClĂ©ment Doucet. They played classical music, American and French jazz of the 20s because Le Boeuf sur le Toit was somewhere people went to discover and understand jazz. So at 14 I was sure that I’d one day record a tribute CD to the 20s.

What impact do you think the cabaret had on classical music?
A lot. Maurice Ravel often came to Le Boeuf sur le Toit because he was a fan of jazz – his opera L’enfant et les sortileges and both Piano Concertos are inspired by jazz. I’m sure that without Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the music of Ravel wouldn’t be the same. And The Six – Poulenc, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Auric, Durey and Honegger – were inspired by jazz. A lot of musicians, a lot of artists came to Le Boeuf sur le Toit practically every night. It was a family, not just of composers, but also actors, singers, pianists – like Rubinstein – and writers. Chaplin and Cole Porter went there. It was a family of artists. It’s impossible to imagine a place like that today.

Alexandre TharaudGiven there was so much variety in the music that was performed there, how did you decide what to include on your recording?
I wanted to have different styles of music – American jazz, French jazz, chansons. Everything on the programme is music that you could have heard at Le Boeuf sur le Toit. For example 'J'ai pas su y faire', sung by French chanteuse Juliette, was originally sung by Yvonne Georges, a wonderful singer, who isn’t well-known today but was a star in the ’20s. It was very important for me to record a tribute to this very important singer. All the tracks on the record are small tributes to different people.

Was it a challenge for you, as a classical musician, to adapt to jazz?
I’m not a jazzman: I will never be a jazzman. To play jazz you have to be completely free. Your left-hand has to be in a regular position, and the right hand has to be completely free. In your mind you have to feel free. But this is not the jazz of our time, it’s very old jazz and it’s not far from the music of Poulenc, Satie or Ravel so it wasn’t too different for me. It’s the same family – and I know this family.

You’ve also spoken about this recording as a tribute to your grandfather…
Yes, my grandfather was a violinist at the end of the ’20s and ’30s and he played in an orchestra in Paris. He played for balls, in cafes, for silent movies and for recordings. He told me this time was fantastic because all musicians played lots of different styles of music. Today, it’s very difficult for a classical pianist to meet a jazzman or a singer of opera, or a dancer, or a writer. All genres are separated – it was more fun in the ’20s because you could meet and work with everybody.

You’ve also just made your film debut in Michael Haneke’s Amour, playing a piano student. What was that like?
It was a very good experience but I think I’ve now finished my very short film career – because after a Palme d’Or at the Festival of Cannes, I can’t accept another film! Michael Haneke wanted a true pianist in the role so he called me, I went to an audiion and won the role. I didn’t know if it was a good choice, because there are maybe 2,000 young actors in Paris who are better than me and who play the piano – I’m not an actor. But I decided to go and I had three days to film my scenes with these two big stars of French cinema – Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. It’s a very sad film, it’s about the end of a life. But it’s a movie about love, which is so important.

Alexandre Tharaud's recording 'Le Boeuf sur le Toit: Swinging Paris' is out now on Virgin Classics and Haneke's film Amour is in cinemas now