Oh, the joys of depressing music.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is one of the finest "downer" compositions ever and a collection of jazz variations on it seems like a can't-miss prospect. The base material is so strong it's like a prime steakhard to go wrong no matter how it's treated (unless, egad, someone boils it).
Pianist Jacques Loussier has spent more than forty years playing classical variations, so there's little chance of Allegretto From Symphony No. 7: Themes And Variations being an amateurish disappointment. But the eleven interpretations sometimes suffer the weight of that experience by feeling too formalistic ("OK, we'll do a swing version, a Latin version, a ballad...").
The composition is well-defined in the opening "Theme," although the straight-ahead jazz background feels like window dressing. Loussier apparently considered recording this as a solo album and doing so here might have provided a stronger reference point for the remainder of the album. The linear notes claim the second variation contains impressionism consistent with Loussier's previous treatment of Debussy, the spacious arrangement on the fourth to his work on Bach's "Air On A G String" and the seventh to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. While meant to illustrate Loussier's range and sophistication, it also reveals why this album sometimes feels conservative.
"Variation One" is a fast swing and "Variation Three" a Latin/rhumba, with slower ballads breaking up the pace on "Variation Two" and "Variation Four." Loussier keeps his short, choppy phrases fairly close to the composition on the upbeat tracks. His touch remains light, but his melodic range expands on the slower tracks where the pace isn't enough to sustain the theme on its own.
Bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac displays a similar approach, playing better when songs demand more from him. His off-the-melody opening on Four is especially noteworthy; his bouncy and close-to-home plucking on faster stuff is OK, but hardly sizzling. Some heat kicks in, however, on "Variation Six," devoted mostly to a solo by drummer André Arpino. He also plays sparingly, but with a rolling rhythm itching to burst through some hidden ceiling. It's marred, however, by a muffled and reverb-heavy tone likely used for some artistic reason, but it's not an asset.
Loussier displays good taste by keeping things mostly slow and thoughtful toward the end of the album, whereperhaps feeling stylistic obligations are completesome of better playing occurs. He plays unaccompanied on "Variation Nine" in a somewhat brighter key with a melodic touch apt for an epic drama soundtrack. The closing "Variation Ten," while retreating into a somewhat Latin theme, is maybe the most adventurous collaboration as the trio finally feels like they're engaging each other in a series of start-and-stop progressions up the intensity ladder.
This isn't Loussier's best work (various recordings of Bachhis specialtyand Ravel's "Bolero" immediately come to mind as superior), but it's a worthwhile experience for his fans. It should also appeal to most fans of Beethoven's Seventh, although some may treat it more as a scholarly exercise rather than recreational listening.