You might not think, offhand, of Erik Satie as a pivotal figure
in music history. His style had no clear followers, or imitators.
He didn't blaze a clear trail - which of course puts him in excellent
company, beside Scriabin and Debussy. Still, I hear echoes of
Satie's strained experiments in musical Surrealism in his French
successors: in Poulenc's boulevardier wit and brittle ironies,
and Ibert's more raucous pops sound.
The ballet Parade, sporting as it does a whistle, a ratchet,
a police siren, and a typewriter among the "instruments,"
helped fix the public image of Satie as a sort of overgrown
enfant terrible. In this performance, conductor Ronald
Corp adopts a novel interpretive approach to the score: he plays
it strictly for musical values! The various extra-musical sound-effects
with which the composer outfitted this "Cubist" ballet
- designed by Picasso and choreographed by Massine - are almost
all integrated into the musical texture as fresh additional
colours although the gunshots do remain a distraction, truth
be told. As for the "normal" orchestral sounds, the
opening chorale is crisply attacked, yet soft-edged in definition;
the searching string lines are clean and warm; and the rhythms
have just the right amount of lift.
The other two ballet scores benefit from similar care. Mercure
begins cheerfully, despite ominous under-linings, with Golliwoggish
syncopations and pointillistic bursts of variegated color; quieter
subsequent dances are thoughtful and atmospheric. Relâche,
Satie's last stage work, is playful and mildly cheeky. Contrasts
within the texture - as between the elegant violins and galumphing
basses in the Entrée de la femme - are acknowledged without
overkill, while tuttis sound full and well-organized.
Separating the ballets are groups of Satie's piano pieces in orchestral
guise. The better-known Gymnopédies receive spacious,
flowing performances. Corp's clean, poised rendition of the
first, in Debussy's orchestration, removes some of the spurious
Romantic patina it's acquired elsewhere. Corp's own arrangement
of the second uses the same forces to more vibrant effect, while
he plays up the chill of the flute-and-horn combinations in
Debussy's version of the third. If these identifications confuse
you, that's because Satie's number one and three became Debussy's
number two and one respectively - don't ask.
The three Gnossiennes, all orchestrated by Corp, are equally
appealing in their echoes of older musical models. The cool,
clear flute and oboe lines of the first Gnossienne suggest
Classical grace, with the "echoing" harp solo reinforcing
a sense of distanced nostalgia. In the second piece, the oboist
has a wonderful sense of the varying rhythms, shaping
the phrases unerringly. The harp returns to prominence in the
third piece, contributing, along with the harmonic-minor progressions,
to the antique effect.
The New London Orchestra plays handsomely and with style. The recurring
prominence of the brass, particularly the solo trumpet, within
textures that don't immediately suggest them is what gives these
scores their café-music flavour. The brass playing here is marvellous,
whether in carefully pointed solos or full-throated, balanced
chords. As is usually the case with this ensemble on disc, the
woodwind soloists - rich, vibrant, and nuanced - are outstanding;
their bright, clean edge recalling an authentic "French"
timbre. I suspect the strings are short-staffed - they can be
a bit grainy, or insubstantial, when playing softly - but they
sound lovely when playing out, especially in the mid-range.
Gorgeous sound reproduction makes this an essential acquisition, especially
at midpriced status.