Recording of the Week,
Piano and Vocal music by Erik Satie
Amongst the musical anniversaries in 2016 comes the 150th anniversary of the birth of French composer, Erik Satie. The majority of his output was for solo piano, and Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa here presents the first volume in a series of his complete piano music, with this instalment including Satie's most famous works such as the Gnossiennes and the Gymnopédies.
Ogawa performs all of these pieces on an Érard piano built in 1890 (coincidentally the year in which Satie wrote the first three Gnossiennes). Partly because of the use of felt and leather on the hammers, and also because the piano strings are straight-strung in parallel (unlike modern grand pianos, which as a general rule are cross-strung over the soundboard), the tone is really quite striking (especially to modern ears accustomed to the sound of a Steinway concert grand, for instance), and if ever you needed a demonstration of how the choice of instrument can fundamentally alter the overall sound produced, this may be the perfect disc!
Satie's best-known piece is the first of the three Gymnopédies, and it's here in particular that the difference in sound struck me the most. I suppose we're used to hearing the piece as a kind of wistful, dreamy meditation, soft and languorous in tone. Well, have a listen to Ogawa's performance and see if you were as startled as I was: from the very first bass note I was intrigued by the somewhat harder-edged tone of the Érard instrument. This is even more pronounced once the melody begins, where Ogawa articulates each note directly and deliberately rather than a seamless wash of sound that one normally hears. Satie does actually write a crescendo and diminuendo over each phrase, which Ogawa takes care to observe, and which is made much more pronounced than usual by the tone of the piano. I have to say that once my ears had adjusted, I came to appreciate more and more the rich tone and clarity of the instrument and how much it suits this music.
This clarity is particularly impressive in pieces such as Chapitres tournés en tous sens and the Españaña movement from Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois. Furthermore, in the movement entitled Sur un casque from Descriptions Automatiques, with its imitation at one point of the sound of drums, Ogawa brings out the rapid-fire repeated notes with great precision and definition, and the Sonatine bureaucratique is performed with an unfussy crispness that I very much enjoyed. Elsewhere, Ogawa highlights the wry humour in some of the pieces, such as the very end of the de Podophthalma movement from Embryons desséchés (which with its closing series of seemingly endless repeated chords pokes fun at a similar succession of chords that closes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony), or the quirky elegance of the brief cakewalk, Le Piccadilly.
With all my excitement traversing the delights of Satie's piano works, I barely have time to mention another recent disc exploring another side of his output. Soprano Barbara Hannigan and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw offer a selection of Satie's vocal music, with the centrepiece being Socrate, a setting of a French translation of Plato. Hannigan brings an extremely appealing tone to her performance throughout the disc, whether it be the ravishing beauty of Sylvie from Trois Mélodies, the hypnotic lethargy of Hymne pour le Salut Drapeau, or the heartbreaking purity and stillness in the final extended movement of Socrate describing the death of Socrates. A fine pair of discs, then, and an excellent way to delve into Satie’s music.