Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Complete Piano Works
Full track listing at end of review
Cristina Ariagno (piano)
rec. Auditorium Fazioli, Sacile, Italy, 2006
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94087 [6 CDs: 379:10]

There is something of the alchemist about Erik Satie. The deceptively simple-sounding early works, and his enigmatic but somehow addictive archaic-meets-jazz style combine to create something almost entirely timeless and ‘classical’ – sometimes infuriating but impossible to ignore.

Satie was popular in our house as he would have been in many others when I was a child in the 1970s, and some of my earliest memories of discovering the differences in sonority between different pianos were in listening to the various recordings we used to have. Frank Glazer on a set of old Vox LPs for instance; attractively warm and deeply resonant on a Bösendorfer, Ciccolini brighter and more entertaining on what I assume must be a Steinway. Cristina Ariagno is here recorded at work in the Fazioli concert hall, so it is fairly safe to assume she’s playing a Fazioli piano, and one with a remarkably fine sustaining quality. Turning first to the Gymnopédies as a kind of litmus test, the playing is good enough – unencumbered by too much fussy pulling around of the tempo but not terribly sensitive to Satie’s landscapes of melodic and harmonic phrasing. The main thing that bothered me from the start is the recording or transfer, which has some kind of artefact which makes the piano wobble slightly between the channels – a kind of vibrato but not of pitch. This is most noticeable on headphones and with the slower pieces, but anyone with sensitivity to accurate piano sound and a degree of Hi-Fi to their sound system may, like me, find this more than bothersome. No matter how nice the playing, if the recording is imperfect there’s no point. Knowing the Fazioli Auditorium acoustic from numerous other recordings I am pretty sure a deal of extra resonance has been layered over the original sound, so this may be a side-effect of electronic post-production though this need not be the case. In CD 1 the effect seems to sort itself out for part of the programme, and Ariagno’s 7ème Gnossienne for instance is spectacular, but having been put on alert this proves to be a major distraction. I tried it on different players and over different systems, but the troublesome and ongoing blemish once noted is a plague which this box cannot shake.

With a bargain set like this the main question will be, ‘is it really worth it?’ In absolute terms the answer is a resounding ‘maybe, maybe not’. Cristina Ariagno’s playing is good enough at a technical level and the piano sound is very rich – perhaps even too rich at times, though with plenty of the sonorous quality you want in pieces such as the prayer-like Ogives. If you are interested in exploring beyond the more usual recital repertoire and some of the excellent single-disc recordings around then this box has almost all of the pieces you’ve never heard before, though the ‘Complete’ title isn’t entirely accurate and there are a few small morsels missing.

There are a few alternative choices when it comes to ‘complete’ surveys of Erik Satie’s work for solo piano. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is impressive and full of character on Decca, if perhaps sometimes a little too direct and even drily cursory with some of the pieces, though this impression is sometimes the result of a rather close and unsympathetic recording. There is a fine line between being overly poetic and healthily sanguine with Satie’s music, and such things are always more than a little subjective. I’ve had a listen to the cycle with Jane Manning and Bijan Gorisek on the Audiophile Classics/Intermusic label, and while there are some nice things there is also a good deal of over-emphasis and heavy handedness. I don’t want to dismiss entire sets out of hand from memory, but this one in particular didn’t float my boat. Aldo Ciccolini is a pianist for whom I have a great deal of time, and his playing of Erik Satie was part of my formative listening in younger days. I still consider his approach to be one with lyrical sensitivity and stylish élan, but while his earlier 1970s EMI recordings can be considered among the best of any versions I also have to abandon my nostalgia-drenched sympathies and argue a case against over-pedalling when it comes to the Gymnopédies. There’s a set with Jean-Pierre Armengaud on the Mandala label about which I’m unable to comment, and I’ve yet to hear Anne Queffélec on Virgin Classics though it has had very good reviews, as has the playing of Steffen Schleiermacher on MDG.

Cristina Ariagno’s recording has been panned in certain quarters, but to start with I was reluctant to go that far. An absence of ‘whimsy’ is part of the story, but Erik Satie’s quirky surrealism and sometimes bizarre Gallic humour isn’t always what I would call whimsical. Where frustration with this recording really sets in is with some of the dance numbers, which I can’t imagine anyone moving to, elegantly or otherwise. The Fantaisie-Valse is just one such example on CD 4, followed by strangely unstable and darting rhythms in the following Petite Ouverture à danser and in the well-known Je te veux, as well as a distinctly leaden feel to the Poudre d’or waltz. There is some remarkably un-charming playing elsewhere on the fourth disc, but then Ariagno turns in some nice little renditions of the gentler pieces such as with the Enfantillages pittoresques. Swings and roundabouts are the order of the day all over the place. Ariagno creates a remarkable atmosphere with some of the Préludes Du “Fils Des Étoiles” on CD 5 which point the way towards Messiaen in eye-opening fashion. It’s a shame then that the weird recording side-effect is once again a distraction here. More playful moments are stamped on heavily, making Satie’s Jack in the Box more of a Jackboot, and as these heavily insensitive and unidiomatic patches begin to take a hold and spread like an oil slick through ones general impressions the less warmly inclined one feels towards this set.

The final disc is a 42 repetition traversal of Vexations, and with daft generosity each performance of this miniature wonder is given its own access point. It is good to have this piece represented here, and my preference for Alan Marks’ 1991 recording, originally on Decca but now available on the LTM label is neither here nor there. This box is supplied with interesting and comprehensive booklet notes by Ornella Volta, but in the end there are too many negatives stacked up against the whiffs of promise which occasionally come through. Even at bargain price I can’t recommend what ultimately turns out to be a rather long haul of tediously shapeless monotony with an irritatingly faulty recording. If you want a big dose of classy Satie for a really bargain price go for Aldo Ciccolini’s vintage 1966-71 EMI recordings: L’oeuvre pour piano, not the 1980s remakes.

Dominy Clements

Whiffs of promise, but ultimately tedious and unlovely.

Full track listing:

CD 1
Sarabandes (1887) [14:51]
Gymnopédies (1888) [8:40]
Trois Gnossiennes (1890) [8:34]
4ème Gnossienne (1891) [3:36]
5ème Gnossienne (1889) [3:28]
6ème Gnossienne (1897) [1:38]
7ème Gnossienne (1891) [4:02]
Pièces froides (1897) [12:46]
Nouvelles Pièces froides (1907) [6:58]
CD 2
Fête Donnée Par Des Chevaliers Normands En L’Honneur D’une Jeune Demoiselle (Xième Siècle) (1887?) [4:00]
Ogives (1886-189?) [11:19]
Leit-motiv du “Panthée” (1891) [1:08]
Première Pensée Rose Croix (1891) [1:29]
Sonneries de la Rose Croix (1892) [14:46]
Danses gothiques (1893) [12:11]
Douze petits Chorals (1906-1908) [8:56]
Verset laîque & somptueux (1900) [1:29]
CD 3
The Dreamy Fish Ou Le Poisson Rêveur (1901) [7:22]
Préludes flasques pour un chien (1912) [5:06]
Véritables Préludes flasques pour un chien (1912) [3:11]
Descriptions automatiques (1913) [5:05]
Embryons desséchés (1913) [7:00]
Croquis & agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois (1913) [5:35]
Chapitres tournés en tous sens (1913) [5:36]
Vieux Sequins & Vieilles Cuirasses (1913) [5:32]
Heures séculaires & instantanées (1914) [3:55]
Les trois Valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté (1914) [3:15]
Avant-dernières Pensées (1915) [3:56]
Sonatine bureaucratique (1917) [4:37]
CD 4
Allegro (1884) [0:30]
Valse-Ballet (1887) [2:11]
Fantaisie-Valse (1887) [2:19]
Petite Ouverture à danser (1897?) [1:53]
Poudre d’or (1902) [5:44]
Je te veux (1897-1904) [5:56]
Le “Piccadilly” (1904) [1:53]
Passacaille (1906) [2:54]
Trois nouvelles Enfantines (1913) [2:08]
L’Enfance de Ko-Quo (1913) [2:15]
Menus Propos enfantins (1913) [2:38]
Enfantillages pittoresques (1913) [3:43]
Peccadilles importunes (1913) [2:14]
Sports & divertissements (1914) [15:32]
Premier Menuet (1920) [2:07]
Rêverie (1920-1921) [2:11]
Préludes Du “Fils Des Étoiles” (1891) [12:00]
Prélude du “Nazaréen” (1892) [13:56]
Prélude de “La Porte: héroïque du Ciel” (1894) [4:54]
Prélude en tapisserie (1906) [2:27]
Jack in the Box (1899) [7:25]
Sept toutes petites Danses pour “Le Piège de Méduse” (1913) [4:13]
Les Pantins dansent (1913) [1:36]
La belle Excentrique (19120-1924) [4:27]
Six Nocturnes (1919) [16:40]
CD 6
Vexations (1893) [74:43]