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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Swedish Society Discofil

Erik SATIE (1866 – 1925)
The Complete Piano Music.
Olof Höjer (piano); Max Lörstad (piano) in Music for Piano Duet
Recorded in the Rosenberg Hall, Malmö College of Music 1990 – 1995.
SWEDISH SOCIETY DISCOFIL SCD 1070–1075 [6 CDs: 60:32 + 75:48 + 67:21 + 57:29 + 61:11 + 67:03 available separately]

 

Vol. 1 The Gymnopédiste 1884 – 1890:
Allegro; Valse-ballet; Fantaisie-valse; Ogive No 1 – 4; Sarabande No 1 – 3; Gymnopédie No 1 – 3; Gnossienne No 1 – 6 [60:32]
Vol. 2 The Rosicrucian Music 1891 – 1895:

Première Pensée Rose+Croix; Trois Préludes du "Fils des étoiles": Prélude du 1er acte: La Vocation – Prélude du 2e acte: L’Initiation – Prélude du 3e acte: L’Incantation; Sonneries de la Rose+Croix: Air de l’Ordre – Air du Grand Maitre – Air du Grand Prieur; Quatre Préludes: Fète donnée par des Chevaliers Normands en l’honneur d’une jeune Demoiselle (XIème siècle) – Prélude d’Eginhardt – 1er Prélude du Nazaréen – 2e Prélude du Nazaréen; Danses gothiques; Messe des pauvres: Chant Ecclésiastique – Prière pour les voyageurs et les marins en danger de mort, à la très bonne et très auguste Vierge Marie, mere de Jésus (version 1 and 2) – Prière pour le salut de mo name; Prélude de "La Porte héroique du Ciel"; Pages mystiques: Prière – Harmonies – Vexations [75:48]
Vol. 3 The Velvet Gentleman 1896 – 1904:

Petite Ouverture à danser; Caresse; Danse de travers; Pièces froides: Airs à faire fuir No 1 – 3; Pièces Froides: Danses de travers No 1 – 3; Jack-in-the-Box: Prelude – Entr’acte – Final; Verset laïque et somptueux; Petite musique de clown triste (attr); Rêverie du pauvre (attr); The dreamy Fish; Je te veux; Poudre d’or; La Diva de l’Empire; Tendrement; Le Piccadilly [67:21]
Vol. 4 Musiques intimes et secretes 1905 – 1912:

Passacaille; Prélude en tapisserie; Nouvelles pièces froides: Sur un mur – Sur un arbre – Sur un pont; Musiques intimes et secrètes: Nostalgie – Froide songerie – Fâcheux exemple; Douze petits chorals I – XII; Six pièces de la période 1906 – 1913: Désespoir agréeable – Effronterie – Poésie – Prélude canin – Profondeur – Songe-creux; Carnet d’esquisses et de croquis: Air – Essais – (Plus lent) – Notes – Notes – Le prissonier maussade – "Le grande singe" – Exercises – Notes – Harmonies – Songerie vers "Jack" – Bribes – Choral – Exercises – Exercises – Exercises – Exercises – Petit Prélude de "La Mort de Monsieur Mouche" – Gambades – Arrière propos – Petite danse; Deux reveries nocturnes; Préludes flasques (Pour un chien): Voix d’intérieur – Idylle cynique – Chanson canine – Avec camaraderie [57:29]
Vol. 5 Piano Pieces with Stories 1912 – 1915:

Véritables Préludes flasques (pour un chien): Sévère Réprimande – Seul à la maison – On joue; Descriptions automatiques: Sur un Vaisseau – Sur une Lanterne – Sur un Casque; Croquis et Agaceries d’un gros Bonhomme en bois: Tyrolienne Turque – Danse maigre (à la manière de ces Messieurs) – Españana; Embryons déssechés: d’Holothurie – d’Edriophthalma – de Podophthalma; Chapitres tournés en tous sens: Celle qui parle trop – Le Porteur de grosses Pierres – Regrets des Enfermés (Jonas et Latude); Vieux Sequins et Vieilles Cuirasses: Chez le Marchand d’Or (Venise, XIIIe siècle) – Danse cuirassée (période greque) – La défaite des Cimbres (Cauchemar); Trois nouvelles Enfantines: Le Vilain petit Vaurien – Berceuse – La gentile toute petite Fille; Menus Propos enfantins: Le Chant guérrier du Roi des Haricots – Ce que dit la petite Princesse des Tulipes – Valse du Chocolat aux Amandes; Enfantillages pittoresques: Petit Prélude à la Journée – Berceuse – Marche du grand Escalier; Peccadilles importunes: Être jaloux de son camarade qui a une grosse tête – Lui manger sa tartine – Profiter de ce qu’il a des cors aux pieds pour lui prendre son cerceau; Sports et Divertissements: Choral inappétissant – La Balançoire – La Chasse – La Comédie italienne – Le Réveil de la Mariée – Colin-Maillard – La Pêche – Le Yachting – Le Bain de mer – Le Carneval – Le Golf – La Pieuvre – Les Courses – Les Quatre Coins – Le Pique-nique – Le Water-Chute – Le Tango perpetual – Le Traîneau – Le Flirt – Le Feu d’Artifice – Le Tennis; Heures séculaires et instantanées: Obstacles venimeux – Crépuscule matinal (de midi) – Affolements granitiques; Les trois Valses distinguées du Précieux dégôuté: Sa Taille – Son Binocle – Ses Jambes; Avant-Dernières Pensées: Idylle – Aubade (à Paul Dukas) – Méditation (à Albert Roussel) [61:11]
Vol. 6
Piano Pieces 1913 – 1920

Petites danses de "Le Piège de Méduse": Quadrille – Valse – Pas vite – Mazurka – Un peu vif – Polka – Quadrille; Les Pantins Dansent; Ragtime Parade; Sonatine Bureaucratique; Nocturnes No 1 – 6; Premier Menuet;
Music for Piano Duet

Trois Morceaux en forme de poire: Manière de Commancement – Prolongation du même – I (Lentement) – II (Enlevé) – III (Brutal) – En Plus – Redite; Aperçus désagréables: Pastorale – Choral – Fugue; En Habit de Cheval: Choral – Fugue litanique – Autre Choral – Fugue de Papier; Trois petites Pièces montées: De l’Enfance de Pantagruel (Rêverie) – Marche de Cocagne (Démarche) – Jeux de Gargantua (Coin de Polka); La belle Excentrique: Marche franco-lunaire – Grande Ritournelle – Valse du "Mystérieux baiser dans l’OEil" – Grande Ritournelle – Cancan Grand-Mondain [67:03]

Erik Satie belongs to that group of artists, whose work has been over-shadowed by their eccentric life-style. The general picture of Satie is a man bearded, later in life bespectacled, oddly dressed, wearing a bowler hat and with an obsession for umbrellas. (The cover pictures above are good illustrations.) Add to this a reclusive life, a style of composition that, however full of changes it was, never followed the trends. The work titles at best were strange but more often than not were quite incomprehensible. Still he is today firmly rooted in the pantheon of great composers, although I believe that the great majority of even well-informed classical music enthusiasts have heard very little of his oeuvre. And I have to admit to belonging to that category myself, at least up until 1983. Before that I had of course heard his Gymnopédies, in the original piano versions or different arrangements, and I also knew some of his cabaret songs. In 1983 I went to two concerts (actually the same concert twice with some months’ interval). These gave me a fuller picture of Satie and his musical world which really was something out of the ordinary. The two artists who invited me to this world were Iwa Sörenson, lyric soprano at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, and pianist Olof Höjer. The music immediately grabbed me by my shirt-collar and the effect was enhanced by Höjer’s spoken commentaries interspersing the music. He is a brilliant communicator, in his playing, in his speaking and in his writing, and the booklet text is an invaluable asset to the series. I won’t pretend that I am a ‘Satian’, or whatever the term should be, or that I am familiar with most of his works, but when the editor asked me to review this series, I jumped at the idea, seeing it as a good way of further education. And so it turned out to be. It has been a pleasure to follow Satie and Höjer through the thirty-six years encompassed by Satie’s piano writing. It has been an experience thrilling, full of variety, funny, sometimes boring. I don’t think I would like to make the same journey in its entirety again within the next few months, but I will certainly return to much of it and enjoy the music in smaller helpings.

The six CDs, covering the complete piano music by Satie, have a total playing time of more than 6½ hours. Listening through all of the discs in a few sittings is not advisable. The reason for that will hopefully be evident from the review. They are not issued as a boxed set, which most comparable offerings are, and that makes it easier to try them out piecemeal instead of risking a bulk-buy at considerable cost. Each disc has a booklet – or rather a book – of the size that in some cases only with difficulty can be put back in the jewel-case. It should also be noted that the books are in English only with one essay, Erik Satie and the piano, recurring in each book and a longer essay, covering the specific period of the disc. All of this is very informative and perspective building. There are also lots of illustrations.

One more general comment: the heading "Complete Piano Music" was true when Höjer recorded this 10 – 15 years ago; after that a couple of "new" pieces have been unearthed, one of them, San Bernardo, as late as 2002, while La Chemise was published in 1995, the same year that Höjer finished this project. He also includes two pieces that were for many years thought to be by Satie, which Steven M Whiting proved to be wrong in 1995, in time for Höjer to acknowledge in his booklet commentaries. Over now to the individual discs.

Volume 1 "Le Gymnopédiste" covers the years 1884 – 1890. Here we find some juvenilia, inter alia his first known composition, Allegro from 1884. It is a short piece, 24 seconds, and it doesn’t give much of an impression. It was not published during his life-time, not until 1972 in fact, and that applies to a lot of this music. The next two pieces, both waltzes, are agreeable and quite conventional, but at least in the second of them one feels that the still teen-aged composer is approaching a tonal language of his own. But when he in 1887 returns to composing for the piano we are at once in a totally new world. In the four Ogives (meaning "pointed arches") we are transported back to the Middle Ages, where Satie is building high Gothic cathedrals. His building materials are powerful, heavy chords that are allowed to resound and die away before the next chord comes. The only forerunner I can think of is Alkan, a generation earlier but his is a truly romantic language, where the chords are the foundation for the slowly moving melody shaped by the uppermost notes. In Satie’s cathedral Gregorian chant still resounds but with the voices replaced by the piano. It is evocative, fascinating – and exhausting. There is a stillness that is at first soothing but in the end feels lifeless – the tempos are so slow that one loses the impression of rhythm and movement. In the three contemporaneous Sarabandes he utilizes the same method: again chords with a lot of air between them, but the harmonies are tighter - he is moving away from the 19th century. The well known Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes are in the same mould: slow, recessed, seldom stronger than a mezzo-forte but with the haunting melodies in the foreground. Höjer plays them in a very flexible manner, more rubato than some and delicate shadings. The Satie-novice could well start here and be assured that this is pianism of the highest order.

Volume 2 "The Rosicrucian Music" follows Satie through the first half of the 1890s. This was the period when he became part of the Rosicrucian Order or, "Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique, du Temple et du Graal". It was instigated by the novelist, dramatist and philosopher Joséphin Péladan, a front-figure in the symbolist movement in the 1890s, where mysticism, occultism and decadence blossomed. Satie became, at least for a time, the composer and conductor of the order and he produced a handful of works before he took exception to the whole idea. Typical of this Rosicrucian Music is slow tempo, soft tone and an atmosphere of mysticism and even bloodlessness. It is also repetitive and might be a forerunner of minimalism. Strictly speaking it is only the first seven tracks on this disc that belong to the Rosicrucian period – Satie left the order in August 1892 – but what he wrote during the following years is principally cast in the same mould. With some exceptions. The Prélude de "La Porte héroique du Ciel" – dedicated to himself! – is lively, well comparatively, but you actually have a feeling of forward movement. On the whole I found much of this dispiriting.

Among these pieces we also find one of his most famous, or rather infamous, compositions, Vexations. It means literally "Harassment" (in the plural) and the crux of the matter, and the reason for its fame, is that, according to the composer, the piece (or "Motif" as he calls it) should be played 840 times! I am indeed very grateful to Olof Höjer for not following this instruction on this recording. That would have meant another 15 CDs or so. He confines himself to about 1/60 of that and lets the music fade out during the 14th round. He actually started the concerts I mentioned earlier by playing the piece until the host of the evening entered the stage, umbrella in hand ...

Volume 3 "The Velvet Gentleman". The title refers to the fact that Satie in 1895 suddenly became a rich man through an inheritance. Some of the money he spent on buying seven identical velvet suits, some of which were still unused when he died. This change of financial status didn’t, however, change his compositional status, for the first third of this disc sticks to the same mood as before, including the Pièces froides (Cold pieces). But Jack-in-the-Box suddenly breaks the esoteric spell and introduces us to another side of Satie’s genius: his cabaret side. Jack-in-the Box is what remains of a theatre project that Satie was involved in just before the turn of the century. The play was never staged but the music was saved and is presented here in a piano reduction of the orchestral score, both of them obviously made by Milhaud. This is hectic, rhythmic, partly dissonant music – and entertaining. But it is still constructed in that "minimalistic" way: short motifs repeated and slightly changed. That you don’t get that feeling of monotony is due to the higher speed and the existence of a perceptible pulse. The dreamy Fish comprises remnants from an unfinished theatre project and again we have that hectic feeling, a wealth of ideas stumbling upon each other, jaunty almost parody rhythms.

This disc is rounded off with five cabaret songs, highlighting still another side of Satie’s activities. For many years he earned his living by accompanying cabaret singers and accordingly writing songs for them. This is the closest Satie ever came to a really "popular" idiom, and consequently he later rejected "des rudes saloperies" ("the crude filth"). However, these songs are among the most enjoyable and vigorous from the pre-war years, especially in their original vocal versions. As piano pieces they are greatly entertaining, especially when played with such loving care and tongue-in-cheek spirit. In a concert programme he would probably never play them as a set, but here, as a number of encores after a successful heavy-weight recital they are very apt.

Vol. 4 "Musiques intimes et secrètes 1905 – 1912". In 1905 Satie suddenly decided to educate himself further, being tired of the criticism that was heaped upon his compositions. Somebody has said that the partly strange, and in any case personal, music Satie created was due to his fallible education. It was like someone who only knew thirteen of the letters in the alphabet and out of those letters had to create a meaningful language. He applied for and was accepted at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, where his teacher in counterpoint was Albert Roussel, the foremost French symphonist at the time. He threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies and once more changed not only his composition style but also his exterior. Gone were the velvet suits, now he appeared in dark suit and waistcoat. The later well known attributes bowler hat and umbrella were added to his outfit. Compose he did, but very little was published then or even later during his lifetime. It was only in 1968 that Robert Caby dug up the majority of the music on this disc. Few of these pieces are of great importance as compositions in their own right. They should be regarded as exercises and most are very short: few exceed one minute in playing time and some are not longer than a few seconds. But they definitely show the results of his contrapuntal training at the Schola Cantorum and they are valuable, just as painters’ sketchbooks are, to understanding his further development. And in among them there are pleasant surprises, like in the Carnet d’esquisses et de croquis, consisting of 21 small sketches, where the beautiful 32-seconds-long No. XVII Exercises and the somewhat longer can-can-like No XIX Gambades stand out. There are also some older pieces, like No XVIII Petite Prélude de "La Mort de Monsieur Mouche, composed around the turn of the century and supposed to be the earliest French example of cake-walk. But mostly these chips from the artist’s workbench must be seen as preliminary studies for what was to follow in the next volume.

Vol. 5 "Piano Pieces with Stories" 1912 – 1915. Here, suddenly, Satie goes into a phase of new creativity, a phase that also invariably produces some of his most fantastic work titles and comments. Many of them also belong to the best and most well-known of his compositions and the reader whose curiosity about Satie may have been aroused by this review should probably start here. This is music to return to repeatedly, to ponder over, to smile at the titles, to wonder whether Satie is serious, or crazy or just wanting to pull the pianists’ and the listeners’ collective noses. We actually throw ourselves into a kaleidoscopic world of rhythms (one of the "Real flabby preludes" is a rag-time), of children’s songs, of quotations from Chabrier, Mozart, Beethoven and so forth; he paints strange landscapes, strange embryos (the Embryons déssechés, of which Satie wrote "This piece is completely incomprehensible, even to myself") and everybody can use his/her own imagination to create one’s own pictures and stories.

There is also some music written with children in mind: simple, technically surmountable for people with small hands, but the real masterpiece is Sports et Divertissements. The background to these 21 pieces is quite amusing. A publisher asked Stravinsky to write music to a series of drawings by Charles Martin, but Stravinsky refused because the fee was too low. Satie was then asked and offered the same sum of money, but refused because the fee was to high! So not until the publisher cut the fee to half did Satie agree. Olof Höjer has some interesting and enlightening comments on the music and it is a pity that room was not found in the booklet for more. The half-minute-long Le Golf has a very clear resemblance to Tea for Two, and were it not for the fact that Vincent Youmans wrote his evergreen more than ten years later, I would bet that Satie saw the pun Tee for Two. Anyway it is very entertaining and Höjer plays all of this so delicately.

Vol. 6 "Piano Pieces 1913 – 1920" "Music for Piano Duet"

During the last decade of his life, from October 1915 when he met Jean Cocteau, Satie wrote little piano music and instead concentrated on stage music. However he did write some pieces between 1917 and 1920 and these, in a way, sum up his achievements. Dance had an important place in much of his writing and in the Petites danses de "Le Piège de Meduse" he also uses ‘danses’ not associated with him: quadrille, mazurka, polka. A strange and interesting creation is his Sonatine Bureaucratique where he "borrows" a sonata by Clementi and re-writes it. In a written comment he called it "just a joke – a very small joke. That’s it ..."

Partnered by Max Lörstad, Olof Höjer rounds off this last disc, in this complete survey of Satie’s piano oeuvre, with some piano duets, of which Trois Morceaux en forme de poire are the oldest, written as early as 1903. These "three pear-shaped pieces" are actually seven and they are definitely entertaining, based in several cases on cabaret music. En Habit de Cheval might mean "Dressed as a horse" but it is difficult to find anything horsey in it. Once again Satie pulls our noses. In the final work, La belle Excentrique, which was also his very last composition for piano, we are once again back in the cabaret world. However much he hated "the crude filth" he obviously felt drawn to it, a kind of love-hate relationship maybe.

And here ends this traversal through the music of one of the most singular of composers. All is not gold and one can wonder what Satie would have liked so much, that he obviously had rejected, to be published and played. But that’s a fate he has to share with others, and we should be grateful for the opportunity to look into the master’s workshop.

As I have already said there is much that has more musicological than musical interest, but once one indulges in these byways they can be very rewarding. I am also filled with admiration for Olof Höjer’s deep involvement in this project and I know that he has spent many years studying and returning to Satie. It is quite obvious when you listen to his playing that he is in complete sympathy with the idiom. There are others who have also made this traversal on record and I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to them. Aldo Ciccolini’s set is available and he has always had very good reviews. There are also complete sets by Thibaudet and Pascal Rogé, but all of these are in boxed sets. And to anyone wanting to start a Satie collection and preferring to buy the discs piecemeal, I can wholeheartedly recommend Olof Höjer. As a bonus you also get the very substantial booklets, written by a pianist who loves this music.

Göran Forsling



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