Picture the scene: Jean Wiéner playing Gershwin, accompanied by Jean Cocteau and Darius Milhaud on percussion; among the audience, Pablo Picasso, Sergei Diaghilev, Maurice Chevalier. The 1921 opening night of Le Bœuf sur le toit, the celebrated Parisian cabaret-bar, must have been quite the occasion. Named after Milhaud's intoxicating ballet, itself titled after a Brazilian tango, it became the epicentre of Paris during the Roaring Twenties. It even gave French jazz the expression "faire un bœuf" – a jam session. Milhaud reported “a spirit of carefree gaiety reigned”, a spirit Marcela Roggeri and François Chaplin's varied programme aimed to evoke.
The All About Piano festival at London's Institut français attracts some well known pianists – Melvyn Tan and Barry Douglas were on the bill this edition – but it's the byways of the French repertoire that usually attract my attention. Across the weekend, you could have heard Poulenc's Hommage à Édith Piaf or Fernard de La Tombelle's Orientale. In a supporting performance before this recital, Alexandre Lory, a student from the Paris Conservatoire, played Guillaume Connesson. Roggeri and Chaplin chose to mix the jazzy – Milhaud and Gershwin – with some Piazzolla (Roggeri keen to point the differences between Brazilian and her native Argentinian tango), and arrangements of French works usually known in their orchestral guise.
Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre started out life as a song, so the two-piano transcription worked decidedly well with a real dialogue between the two parts, Roggeri playing with more panache, Chaplin the less extrovert. It felt significant that Chaplin led Ravel's Pavane and Debussy's own arrangement of the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, cooler than their respective orchestral scores, but full of exquisite poise, while Roggeri fired up the jazzier numbers. Gershwin's 3 Préludes were wonderfully loose-hipped.
The atmosphere was relaxed, the pianists each providing spoken introductions to the repertoire. We were encouraged to picture Poulenc's performance instructions for his Élégie, “as if you were improvising it, a cigar in your mouth and a glass of cognac on the piano”. It was also a touch chaotic. Roggeri and Chaplin frequently swapped pianos, to take turns playing the first piano part, which entailed much relaying of sheet music and repositioning of Chaplin's page-turner (Roggeri, either through choice or lack of willing volunteers, did without).
Ironically, the centrepiece of their recital, Milhaud's Le Bœuf sur le toit itself, was rather shambolic in execution with frayed edges and ensemble slips. Roggeri and Chaplin played their own two-piano transcription of what was originally a four-hand score – believe it or not, Milhaud and Georges Auric were joined by Artur Rubinstein to play it six hands in Paris! Tempo changes were not always in gear and Roggeri indulged in a few exaggerated rallentandos just before a scampered page turn, giving an unrehearsed air. Matters weren't helped by some explosive heckling midway from a particular vieille dame, aimed at her neighbour playing with her mobile phone, although Roggeri shrugged it off with a raised hands gesture. Perhaps it evoked the “anything goes” spirit of 1920s Paris more than anyone had bargained for.
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