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Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Gnossienne No.1 – à Roland Manuel (1890)
Gnossienne No.2 (1890)
Gnossienne No.3 (1890)
Le Fils des Etoiles (1892)
Prélude de la Porte Héroïque du Ciel (1894)
Sonneries de la Rose + Croix (1891)
1er Gymnopédie – à Mademoiselle Jean de Bret (1888)
2ème Gymnopédie – à Conrad Satie (1888)
3ème Gymnopédie – à Charles Levade (1888)
1ère Ogive – à JP Contamine de Latour (1886)
2ème Ogive – à Charles Levade (1886)
3ème Ogive – à Madame Clément le Breton (1886)
4ème Ogive – à Conrad Satie (1886)
Claire Chevallier (Erard piano, 1905)
rec. Studio Sequenza (Montreuil), 31 March–4 April 2008. DDD.
Zig Zag Territoires ZZT080901 [67:39]
Experience Classicsonline

Claire Chevallier has already recorded for Zig Zag, on her 1905 Erard piano, Ravel’s Left-hand Piano Concerto and, with Jos van Immerseel, Rachmaninov’s Suites for two pianos. The Ravel recording (ZZT060901, coupled with Boléro, etc.) received a warm welcome from several reviewers, the Rachmaninov a much less enthusiastic one.
The present CD opens with the first three Gnossiennes. The first of these is marked Lent, but I thought that Chevallier’s time of 4:48 was just too slow. Klara Körmendi’s tempo (Naxos 8.550305, a selection from her complete set) seems much more apposite here. The same is true for the other two Gnossiennes – and why do we have only the first three; where are the remaining Gnossiennes? Chevallier certainly captures a dreamlike, mystic, almost fragile atmosphere here, but I prefer Körmendi. I almost wrote that Chevallier makes Satie sound more like the music of his on-off friend, Debussy, except that Debussy’s piano music isn’t as fragile as this.
Actually, on reflection, it isn’t so much the tempo of Chevallier’s playing that’s the problem – Reinbert de Leeuw on his much-praised recording (Eloquence 468 160 2 or Philips Duo 462 161 2) is actually slower in Nos.1 and 3, but he keeps the music moving forward without sounding as studied as Chevallier. There certainly is a wide variety of tempi on offer in these works, with Pascal Rogé (mid-price Decca 475 7527) almost as fast as Körmendi, without in any way losing the magic of the music: indeed, his recording was originally justly sub-titled Piano Dreams (458 105 2 – still available at full price.) Annie Queffélec’s tempi are also in the same league as those of Rogé and Körmendi without in any way sounding too hurried. Her recommendable accounts of Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies come in a variety of inexpensive couplings on 1- 2- and 4-CD sets (see below).
Körmendi and Rogé also perform the Gymnopédies; here, too, I found their rather faster tempi much more to the point, even though Körmendi (but not Rogé) perhaps misses some of the magic and she isn’t quite triste enough in No.2 or grave enough in No.3. Of course, the well-known No.1 is marked Lent et douloureux, but surely Chevallier (track 11) is too douloureux? Again, it isn’t just a question of tempo: once more, de Leeuw is just as slow, but he keeps the music moving. In No.2 he expresses the sadness and gravity of these pieces, respectively, at tempi even slower than Chevallier’s. Nevertheless, my overall preference would be for Rogé, whose recording of the Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies may also be obtained in wma or mp3 sound for £7.90 as a download (410 220 2 or 475 7527) from Universal’s Be aware, however, that the latter may be obtained on CD for much the same price (currently at £8.07 from one dealer).
Queffélec offers an excellent compromise: she performs the three Gymnopédies at tempi intermediate between those of Körmendi and Rogé on the one hand and de Leeuw and Chevallier on the other. Most listeners will probably find her ideal.
De Leeuw also performs the Ogives; again, his tempi are, if anything, even slower than Chevallier’s – her version of No.2 sound positively lively at 2:27 by comparison with his 3:54 – but, once again, with this one exception, he keeps the music moving where Chevallier sounds somewhat tentative.
The new Chevallier recording will appeal especially to anyone who wishes to hear her 1905 Erard piano and to those who want the less accessible items in the programme. Several of the pieces here, many of them associated with the Rosicrucians, don’t feature on other recordings which couple Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes and some of them are available only on complete recordings of Satie’s piano music. For most listeners, however, there are better – mostly less expensive – alternatives.
The classic performances by Aldo Ciccolini come in a 5-CD set from EMI (5 85602 2 or 5 74534 2) or on a single-CD selection (mid price 5 67239 2 or budget price EMI Encore 5 86430 2). His tempi tend to fall between the extremes, with a tendency towards the faster end of the range. His Gymnopédie No.1, for example, at 3:09, is only a trifle slower than Körmendi and much faster than Chevallier, yet it perfectly captures the spirit of the marking lent et douloureux. His account of No.2 is even further removed from Chevallier’s tempo, without losing one iota of the music’s meaning and the same is true of his versions of Gnossiennes. If you don’t mind intrusive marketing at the beginning of each track, you can listen free to the whole of Ciccolini’s performances on 5 67239 2 on
Tony Hayward confidently recommended a budget-price RCA recording, including the Gymnopédies, by Peter Dickinson (09026 63976 2 – see review) and Neil Horner recommended another inexpensive recording by Håkon Austbø, containing Gymnopédies and all six Gnossiennes: Classic Collection 99896 – see review: the link on that page will now take you to Brilliant Classics, who issue that recording with the same catalogue number. I note that Austbø’s tempi tend, like Queffélec’s, to fall between the extremes.
Adam Binks thought the recording on a well-filled Regis CD of performances by John McCabe, from Saga originals, too variable for a wholehearted recommendation (RRC1227 – see review).
Reinbert de Leeuw’s single-disc Eloquence or 2-CD Duo set (see above) offer much better value than this new Zig Zag recording. His performances are just a little too slow for my liking, though they have been defended on the grounds that he offers what Satie wanted.
Klara Körmendi’s single-CD selection is recommendable enough – there’s nothing special on offer here, but there are no extremes of tempo or interpretation. Her complete recording, on four separate CDs, is outshone and out-priced by Annie Queffélec.
Queffélec’s highly-regarded Satie performances are available on a budget-price Virgin Classics CD (3 63296 2); at half the price of the new Chevallier recording it has a great deal to recommend it, as does her even less expensive (per CD) 2-CD set (5 22050 2, around £7.50) and the 4-CD set on which she is joined by Catherine Collard (Virgin 5 62363 2, around £15 in the UK). You can try her single-CD and 2-CD collections free on We7; as with the Ciccolini, you’ll have to put up with a brief ad at the start of each track.
Any one of these may well be the best all-round recommendation for those seeking a recording of Satie’s piano music.
Even the less well-known pieces on Chevallier’s programme usually come in brisker performances on those collections which contain them. The Prélude de la Porte Héroïque du Ciel (tr.7), for example, receives a much faster performance on the well-received John White CD (Arte Nova 74321 27797 2). White’s recording also includes the Sonneries de la Rose + Croix (Zig Zag trs.8-10); here his overall timing is very close to Chevallier’s. You can try this collection out, too, on We7 – but don’t follow the link to iTunes to purchase: it’s cheaper to buy the CD from several online dealers, for around £5.
If you think you might react more favourably to Chevallier’s tempi than I did, you could try one track from her recording from eMusic, for 20p or 24p, depending on which tariff you choose – or just choose the opening of each track free, with no membership required. I strongly recommend that you try before you buy.
The new Zig Zag recording comes in a cardboard gatefold sleeve. The recorded sound is good but the presentation is almost as esoteric as Satie himself. In the notes Ms Chevallier tells us little about the music, more about Satie’s temperament and her approach to his music, in which she seems to claim a special relationship not quite borne out in the actual performances. I’m not trying to be sarcastic when I say that perhaps that special relationship needs more time to mature.
Brian Wilson


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