May 2000

Jacques Loussier Trio - Bach's Goldberg Variations
Telarc CD-843479
Released: 2000

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Asked why he had left the classical-music field, a straight-talking cat I once knew laid out his reasons in an alarmingly dispassionate manner. A classical musician, he explained, always plays other people’s music, never his own. To rub salt into this festering wound, those other people are always six feet under and beyond compost, not contemporaries with whom one could at least share culture, zeitgeist and artistic sensibilities. To compound this limitation on creativity yet further, modern music research over the years has unearthed plenty of empirical evidence that no longer politely suggests but rather demands specific tempi, limited embellishments, precise tuning and playing styles for most major composers and their works. In other words, besides not having anything truly original to say, the classical musician’s interpretative range on how to say it has been ratified.

This might explain why so many of today’s classical superstar performers, from James Galway to Nigel Kennedy, from Pavarotti to Richard Stoltzman and the Kronos Quartet, are crossing over. They appropriate other instruments’ repertoires, commission new ones or mine jazz and pop venues for cosmic relief. Let’s face it, genuine creativity demands such proactiveness unless eventual boredom and rote sound like acceptable prospects. It is the very rare artist who can not only inhabit somebody else’s creation such that it virtually becomes his own, but who can also entirely annihilate yesterday’s performance from memory, extract it from the very bone marrow where it is lodged, courtesy of years’ worth of practice and rehearsals, and rediscover the work today in sublime virginal freshness.

Enter the realm of French pianist extraordinaire Jacques Loussier. Preternaturally wise? Blessed with copious early inspiration? Or merely a fortuitous stumble across a secret treasure trove brought on by innocent playfulness during the formative conclusion that’s the Conservatory? We’ll never know what prompted the event. What we do know is that Loussier ensured a miraculous longevity for his own love affair with Johann Sebastian Bach’s piano opus by marrying its mathematical baroque meter with the syncopations of jazz and enhancing the Teutonically geometric harmonic texture with the dissonance of minor blue notes. This juxtaposition of Bauhaus modernism and feudal opulence would serve Loussier as a source of endless renewal and experimentation through half a century. The continuing popularity of this approach proves the perennial wisdom of such cross-pollination.

Celebrated as the genre’s originator, Loussier has now devoted himself to Bach’s masterwork of over thirty sub-miniatures called The Goldberg Variations. Beset with fiendishly difficult technicalities for the pianist, this work was originally scored for harpsichord. Simply switching the score over to the piano overlays the former’s separated dual manuals onto the piano’s combined single keyboard. This quite literally calls for twisted fingers between the left and right hands because both are routinely vying for the very same keys. Hence, even accomplished pianists often shun this work. Loussier adapted the score by separating this overlap in his transcription, which sometimes hands certain bass runs to Benoit Dunover de Segonzac’s double bass.

Seeing The Goldberg Variations annexed into the established Loussier Plays Bach canon is somewhat of a surprise for another reason. Each miniature barely exceeds one minute of playing time, hardly enough to introduce the thematic material before le jazzification detour can develop in earnest. The kind of expansive and progressive improvisations for which the Loussier trio is known throughout its prior Bach incarnations is hence clearly prohibitive with this material. This creates yet another obstacle.

The trio’s suave response to this lack of breathing room is to emphasize mood and stay close to the original score. As any arranger will tell you, tonal colors, so essential in the creation of mood, hinge on a large ensemble’s complexity, with all its inherent permutations of instrumental combinations and variations. Ravel’s Bolero is a case in point. Repeating the same phrase over and over works only because the arrangement makes it interesting. It’s a testament to the Jacques Loussier Trio’s formidable skills that the elements of tempo, rhythm and tonal shadings are maximally exploited to make up for the lack of instrumental variety. André Arpino‘s skills as a drummer are a major contributing factor here, even more so when you consider that he isn’t using a full battery of the percussionist’s arsenal, but limits himself to triangles, brushes, sticks and cymbals.

While the playing here is sublime and finesse of execution always in full view, there is something about the basic choice of The Goldberg Variations for this treatment that I find challenging to relax into. The inherent brevity of the compositional sub structure clashes somewhat with the wealth of intense detail that the musicians inject into it or cajole from it, whichever way it may be. Things grind to a halt too suddenly, sometimes even outright jarringly so when the minute’s up. Think coitus interruptus, only over and over for 30 times. This isn’t really a criticism. If you decide to take the seeds out of a watermelon, you know what you’re getting yourself into before you start. Ditto if you decide to improvise on maximum-brevity miniatures. All it means is that full and repeat enjoyment might elude those listeners who require more breathing room to settle into one groove before being asked to hit the next.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations ŕ la Loussier might thus be an album that is most appreciable for fellow pianists and those for whom the technical aspects of translating this challenging work into the jazz milieu are juicy enough to make up for the somewhat narrow accessibility. Everything that makes Loussier special is in full evidence here. Not even a hair is out of place. Perhaps this is in some ways even a pinnacle, a Grand Styling Event. However, I’m not entirely convinced I’ll have this radical coif again. I think I’ll let it grow out a bit. That’s just me, though. I might feel differently about it tomorrow, so try before you buy, but definitely try.