Still sleepy from the over-night flight from Abu Dhabi to Munich the day before, I was en route to Paris two Wednesdays ago. Charles de Gaulle. Check. Gare du Nord. Check. Metro? Strike. A French welcome; a quintessential Parisian experience. And I haven’t even gotten off public transportation yet.
Having spent more or less 20 years of considerable guilt for not speaking French (though having gotten by reasonably well just on fumes—garbled phrases masqued by growling indistinctively being one of the main ingredients), I’ve finally decided to call quits my age of pretension and enter the town for two days consciously not speaking or attempting a word of French. “I learnt a foreign language to get about, so can you.” My plans broke down shamefully quickly when faced with an obdurate saleswoman in the train station’s newspaper shop who wasn’t having any of my English-only-attempts. So I swallowed one English four-letter word along with my ill-placed pride and exchanged it for a French one—Plan—to get the map of Paris I needed.
With Metros running at “40% probability” I set off to Montmartre on foot, coffee in hand and bag over my shoulder. Walking from train (or bus) stations to hotels is actually one of my favorite activities in any town as it gives a better sense of the place than just box-ticking the touristy spots. Unfortunately for Paris, the impressions thus gained are not necessarily flattering. As if reaffirmation was necessary, even in April Paris doesn’t all smell like roses. (Then again, after the squeaky clean, spic and span underpasses of Abu Dhabi, the pervasive stench of urine does come with overtones of freedom.)
Of great importance for the self-conscious foreigner in Paris is the idea of fitting in. There are several strategies that can help you with this: Strategic winking is very important, but not just at anyone; only at those who could know you, but not well enough to remember if. Select shop-keepers leaning against their fruit and vegetable stands, for example. Throw in the occasional weary smile, to underscore your casual familiarity. Make it a condescending one every one in five.
Paris is also a great place to start smoking. Chose something outrageously French, like filterless Gitanes. The fact that 99% of French smokers prefer Marlboros is easily ignored as you let the fag dangle from your lip with the cool of Lucky Luke. (Before political correctness deprived him of his ubiquitous butt). Does any of this help you to actually blend you in? No. But what’s important is not whether you will manage to look like a real Parisian (you never will), but whether you feel like you might. Psychology, and that the French could have told you right away, is what is all important.
Psychology is also at work when you look at the women of Paris. The principle at work here is the assumption of style and the amplification of grace. Because you are in Paris, you assume that women are fashion-aware, which colors all your judgments about dress, hairstyle, and other factors of appearance. Because you suppose the most stylish of intentions behind whatever the actual outcome, you will find seductive and ennobling qualities behind almost everything and anyone. What would be a dowdy old hag or a trampy termagant in the wrong part of Baltimore is suddenly the epitome of French cuteness. It’s a sophisticated variant on the “Emperor without cloths” syndrome.
I make my way to and through the 18th arrondissement to a perfectly lovely hotel with a view unto the Montmartre cemetery. That strange monstrosity of Sacre Cœur, somewhere between alien aberration and ethereal beauty, straddles the hill in this northern part of Paris. When the sun shines brightly, it looks as if the Taj Mahal had been plunked down and forgotten there; glanced by dull April sunlight it looks grayer, smaller, and much less imposing.
A pale young man, the lines on whose boyish face betray his real age (42) and a good deal of frailty, Tharaud later confesses at dinner to having been terribly nervous for the first of those five Moments Musicaux, even though—or precisely because—the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées means home field (dis)advantage to him. The crowd especially adores him there; the average age appears to be half that of the usual, other concerts at that venue. Regaling them with Chopin in the second half—a confident, delicately muscular E-flat Nocturne, an enthralling Fantaisie-Impromptu, a particularly delicious Ballade No.1, and various other bits—he was then forced to play one encore after another; Bach. Chopin. Rameau. Chopin again. Then Couperion’s Tic-Toc-Choc, ous Les Maillotins—his quintessential encore piece. Then, still, the crowd wanted more and he brought out Bach again. By this time, reveling in all these baroque miniatures in which I know no musician—never mind pianist—that can match him, I was thinking that if his next five albums for Virgin were all Scarlatti, I would be a very happy man. Sure enough, the reluctant seventh encore was Scarlatti. And later came better news, still: His next album—one, if not five— will be of Scarlatti. There was much inner rejoicing as I took in the good news and chucked another oyster.
Tharaud is now with Virgin Classics and no longer with Harmonia Mundi, after recording more than a dozen discs with the latter label, many of them wildly successful (for what it is worth: ionarts / WETA Best of the Year in 2005, 2006, and 2007). The move seems to have surprised the people at Virgin even more than me. “I have been friends with Alexandre for a long time, but I would have never asked or suggested he come over to our label” assures Laceron believably. “When he called me recently and said he needed to talk immediately, I thought about anything—maybe medical problems, who knows. But not that he would want to join Virgin. In fact, I fought for Harmonia Mundi, because I can’t help to take the side of an artists’ label. But he wanted to join us, so in the end of course I was happy to welcome him to the Virgin family.”
Initially Tharaud, quietly tucking into his grilled sole, is reluctant to talk about his reasons for leaving Harmonia Mundi and joining Virgin. But once under way, it starts pouring from the weary, incredibly gentle and soft-spoken musician; Tharaud suddenly seems fragile, bordering frail. The family-aspect comes up again as Tharaud’s communicates, more than just verbally, his need to feel comfortable with the people he works with… his need to avoid conflict and agitation. Virgin—with the generous, vivacious Lanceron (he reminds me greatly of Roland Celette) at the center—is that family for him.
The next morning starts with a working breakfast to talk to Eric Dingman about EMI Classics and the future of the company. The financing struggle of Maltby Capital, the holding company of EMI) is acknowledged but not touched upon. (Not only is Maltby/EMI buckling under the $5 billion loan from Citigroup [with which it had to finance its own purchase], but now there’s a pensions gap that could shave off more than $300m of EMI’s future profits over the next decade. Even though the 2009 numbers for EMI look very good, with 2010 projected to be better, still, there is some uncertainty about the exact future of EMI.)
Pluhar / L'Arpeggiata
Virgin Classics [70:35]
With soprano Nuria Rial and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, Pluhar has singers at her side that are able—and willing—to explore the music in all directions. The difference between pop and early baroque becomes indistinct in the best sense; theorbo, harp, and lute player Pluhar, the “jam-session Domina of early music” (Kai Luehrs-Kaiser), transgresses all boundaries of popular and high-brow at one fell swoop. In a way, Pluhar is an outsider in her world, too. She’s learned with some of the greats of the historically informed performance movement, but she cares about the effect on audiences—the customer—more than pretensions of historical accuracy. Any idea of accuracy, she argues, becomes only vaguer as more and more academic-archeological effort is poured into the subject. Her answer with “Teatro d’Amore” and now “Via crucis” is clear: Music—any music, early music—must dare to entertain. Few entertain with as little compromise as does Pluhar and I continue listening to her for the rest of my trip. Sacre Cœur. The nonstop RER-B to Charles de Gaulle. And the flight to Munich, where a concert with Nagano and Radu Lupu waits. Over the last sounds of Gragnaniello’s “’Stú Criato” the Alps appear through the oval window of the uncomfortable Air France jet and Paris already turns into a fading memory in ashen blues, mauve, and gray.