Tuesday 31 July 2007

The Jacques Loussier Trio play Bach (and more besides)

It was Christmas 2005, it was late at night and I was packing for my holiday visit to my parents' home. It was roughly midway through Radio 3's Bach experience, and, much as I love the composer, it was starting to wear just the slightest bit thin. I turned on the small portable radio and heard something unlike anything I would have expected. I had to sit down, stop packing, and listen to the rest of the programme. I was hearing the Jacques Loussier trio play Bach.

Actually I, and probably you too, had heard them play before. Like most, when such things were still allowed on our television screens, I had seen the adverts for Hamlet cigars: the Loussier trio playing Bach's famous 'air on a g string' was their signature tune. First they played the prelude no.1 in C from the Well Tempered Klavier and then the pastorale in C major. I think I only tuned in during the pastorale, which was nice enough. Then came the 5th Brandenburg concerto and I was utterly swept away. I love hearing new things, I love to hear a take on something I know that is new and fresh. It's especially wonderful when done to a work that you know so well, and for me that is a large part of the appeal of Loussier's work. I was sold, and I soon hunted down the CD of this work, though have never got round to further investigation.

But when the Edinburgh Jazz and Blue festival programme came out, and Loussier was visiting the Queen's Hall, it as an opportunity far too good to pass up. I very much like what the Queen's Hall do during the Jazz festival: the rows of central stalls seats are cleared away to make room for a series of tables and I managed to get a seat at one of the front ones. Indeed, my view of the stage could hardly have been better and, unlike last year for Chick Corea's wonderful gig, the keyboard was in full view, but then that was from a last minute ticket standing in the gallery for less than half the price, so I can't really complain. My companion on that occasion (brother, and co-author of this blog) was in London, attending Salonen's Prom, so I was alone. Not that this mattered, as Finn doesn't care for Loussier much. I suppose he's one of those artists you either adore or just don't really get, or, I imagine, in some cases cannot stand for his defacement of Bach's glorious music (though I think it complements the composer wonderfully, and a lot more so than many a straight interpretation by some classical performers I could mention, certainly there was more passion in each note than in most of the recent Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne).

There's always a problem with concerts like this, though. There were certain pieces I wanted to hear, principally the 5th Brandenburg, and you can often spoil things waiting for your pieces. He jumped straight in with Bach and the prelude no.1 in C from the Well Tempered, and very fine it was too. Though the performance was pretty much as on my CD. Indeed, if there was a criticism in the first half, it would be that it did occasionally feel like they were playing the old standards by the numbers, as it were. It was all terribly nice, but that extra edge wasn't always there.

They moved into the pastorale, which isn't really my favourite piece, and doesn't respond quite so wonderfully to the treatment as some do. There were other problems too. The talented bassist Benoit Dunoyer De Segonzac and drummer Andre Arpino both took extended, extravagant solos (I don't recall, and have failed to note, in which works they did so). These were technically excellent, and there was a real passion to them, indeed, Arpino at times almost resembled Animal from the Muppets in his passion. I should stress I mean that comparison positively. Indeed, at one moment, the cymbal stand moving as he struck it, I did wonder if, a few feet away, I was entirely safe. The problem was that neither of these solos fitted with the Bach. They didn't really grow out of it, or fit back into it as they ended, and that's something I feel that a good jazz solo ought to do. It would have been interesting to hear these musicians in repertoire where such displays would have been a better fit.

But at their best they were sublime: "Here's a well known piece..." said Loussier dryly before playing 'air on a g string'. Truth be told, I was for a moment slightly disappointed as I had half-expected it as an encore. And then, to close the first half, I got my wish: the 5th Brandenburg. And it was superb. Everything I love about the recording, the colour, the texture, and the extra edge of the live reading. Loussier soloed, and his really fitted in exactly the way the others' didn't. Purists will baulk, but if I could take only one Brandenburg 5 to my desert island it would not be a conventional reading, it would be this one.

In the second half we left Bach behind. Personally, I would have preferred to have the composer spread throughout the concert, as this way left things slightly unbalanced. Still, I'd not heard Loussier's treatment on anyone else's work, so I'm glad he didn't just stick with his bread and butter. First up was Vivaldi. I don't like the four seasons very much. I think this is largely because it is played far, far too often. Indeed, we were once staying in a hotel for a week and every morning it was pumped into the dining room at breakfast. It was enough to remove the will to live. However, the Loussier take (they tackled 'Summer') is just the breath of fresh air needed, heightened by the bassist's enthusiastic bowing at the start and end. I think I may track down their disc to hear how they fare on the rest. Then we got a piece by Satie and then Ravel's Bolero, which, if anything, I like even less than the four seasons. And yet the Loussier trio made it enjoyable. The amount of different colour and texture they brought to this horribly repetitive work, that in most hands sounds soothingly akin to Chinese water torture, was impressive, though I think it helped that they were not entirely faithful to the composer's notes.

They were well received by the packed audience and we got one more piece of Bach as an encore. I think (I'm not entirely positive, as they repeated the annoying habit of most performers in not announcing what it was), this was Jesu, Joy of man's desiring (and the snatch of a conventional piano version I played on return home seemed to confirm this - I do have Loussier playing this as well, but by the time I remembered, and given he takes it so much slower on CD, I couldn't be 100 per cent sure). They raced through it with the kind of gusto that hadn't always been present in the first half. There was an absolutely magical interplay between bassist and drummer and I walked out of the hall now having to track this down as well.

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