“What instrument do you think he plays?” my companion and I were idly wondering, as we observed a vastly French audience gathered at the Royal Festival Hall for their compatriot Yann Tiersen.
Judging from his highly acclaimed score to Amlie, France’s most successful film in decades, we decided keyboards was the most likely.
We were right and we were wrong. Tiersen plays the piano like a dream.
He also plays virtually everything else on stage, including guitar, violin, viola, mouth organ, glockenspiel, xylophone, guitar… and accordion. If you had told me beforehand that I would be transfixed by a Frenchman playing an accordion solo I would have politely doubted it. But Tiersen can do things with an accordion that I have never heard before, turning it into the subtlest and most seductive of instruments. Of course, it helps that what he plays on it is his own exquisite music.
It”s not easy to categorise. He has famously been referred to as “the Gallic Michael Nyman“, and there are certainly similarities, especially when he lets rip with strings and keyboards – there are wonderful pieces with driving rhythms that take you along with them, and romantic keyboard solos that could almost have been lifted from Nyman’s score to The Piano.
At other times, vocal lines are reminiscent of Philip Glass at his best. But the most fun is to be had when Tiersen is at his most individualistic, and most French, with charming waltzes scored for a huge variety of instruments and featuring what looked like a child’s xylophone and the accordion.
Have you ever seen someone play the piano while strapping on an accordion, then using one hand for each? I have, now. Tiersen seemed like a magician on stage, dark hair flopping over his face, rarely saying anything, but conjuring a succession of magical sounds from the instruments strewn over the stage. In this he was more than ably assisted by a group of terrific musicians, most of whom seemed as versatile as he was. A string quartet; a couple of guitar players who doubled up as drummers, keyboards or anything else that seemed necessary; a vocalist with a delightful breathy soprano, another who deserted his post as drummer to do a half-decent impersonation of Neil Hannon (though with a French accent). The latter had been prevented from appearing to sing the song he wrote for Tiersen’s new album, L’Absente, by “technical reasons” – a shame, as two such quirky (and complementary) musicians on stage together would have been a real treat.
Tiersen himself is as mercurial as the music. Classical composer, virtuoso performer, street entertainer, rock musician? You choose, because he could be any of the above. He grabs a violin and turns what sound like bowing exercises into an exciting, double stopped extravaganza. Then switches to a guitar and turns his group of musicians into a rock band, or a throwback to the fifties with jangly guitars and an instrumental with the joie de vivre of Telstar. And then it’s back to Parisian streets with a wistful waltz from the accordion, or, as in his third encore, a little tune for Melotron and glockenspiel that would have charmed the Sugar Plum Fairy. I can”t wait for the new album to arrive in the post to meet the characters all over again… If you get the chance to see Yann Tiersen live, don”t miss.