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Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Piano Works: Volume 1
Details after review
Noriko Ogawa (piano: Érard 1890)
rec. J Studio, Tokyo College of Music, Japan, August/September 2015. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as 24/96 stereo download from eclassical.com, with pdf booklet. Also available in mp3, 16-bit lossless and 24/96 surround sound and from dealers as hybrid SACD.
BIS BIS-2215 SACD [78:02]

I was about to send this review for editing when Dan Morgan beat me to it with a comprehensive review. As I find myself thoroughly in agreement with him, rather than cover the same ground twice, I’ve pruned my thoughts.

This is billed as volume one of what promises to be a very useful – perhaps complete – set of Satie’s music. It’s performed on an Érard piano made in the year of Gnossienne No.1, which opens the programme.

Although topped and tailed by Satie’s two best-known pieces, the seven Gnossiennes and three Gymnopédies, this initial instalment contains several works you probably won’t find on a single-CD collection of Satie’s piano music; indeed, there’s plenty here that I didn’t know, or at least didn’t know well.

For the better-known works my benchmarks are Pascal Rogé’s 1984 recording – reissued on Decca Originals 475 7527 – Yitkin Seow on Hyperion Helios CDH55175 and an earlier (1986) BIS release with Roland Pöntinen (BIS-317-CD). The latter is available as mp3 and lossless download from eclassical.com with pdf booklet. Many dealers still have the Helios series at budget price, although the download from hyperion-records.co.uk has reverted to full price. Even then it’s still a reasonable Ł7.99, mp3 and lossless with pdf booklet.

All of these recordings, made on a modern piano, will continue to form part of my regular listening and I certainly recommend obtaining one or more alongside Noriko Ogawa’s new one. I’m not a great fan of early pianos for their own sake, though I make an exception for the likes of Ronald Brautigam’s now almost complete set of the Mozart concertos on the fortepiano for BIS.

Ogawa’s Érard is, of course, closer in sound to the modern instrument than a fortepiano from c.1800, but it has a distinctive timbre which Satie must have expected, at least in the early part of his career when the Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies were composed. Yitkin Seow’s Hyperion recording opens with these two sets though, like most of the recordings on offer, he includes only Gnossiennes 1-6. (No.7 was not discovered until 1986.) All three Gymnopédies are marked lent plus other adjectives: douloureux, triste and grave. Like most performers Seow makes No.1 reflective rather than douloureux, but his No.2 is sad without being over-laden and No.3 certainly sounds serious under his hands. In Nos. 1 and 2 he’s a little slower than Pascal Rogé, who is slightly slower in No.3.

Listen to those two recordings, at tempi with which Roland Pöntinen is broadly in agreement, and it seems unlikely that the music could be played more slowly without running the danger of losing the listener’s concentration. But Noriko Ogawa dares to take just a few seconds longer without doing so: in fact, she brings out the douloureux element of No.1 and the tristesse of No.2 better than any recording that I know, without seeming to outstay her welcome. Dan Morgan speaks of ‘wistful charm’ in these performances, but we get that from many other recordings. Ogawa adds the sadness which Satie asks for.

Klara Körmendi on a generally recommendable Naxos budget-price recording rushes through No.2 and misses the element of sadness, sounding just mildly wistful. Her No.3 is also a trifle too fast. Otherwise her Best of Satie (8.556688) is worth considering by the impecunious who are seeking just one programme. It’s a selection from her five CDs of Satie, also available as a set for around Ł20 (8.505237). By all means sample the latter if you can – via Qobuz, Naxos Music Library or classicsonline.com – but potential collectors of the complete works are well advised to wait for the completion of the BIS series.

If Körmendi demonstrates the dangers of rushing the music, Jérome Kaltenbach with the Nancy Orchestra on an award-winning Naxos CD (8.554279) makes Debussy’s arrangement of No.1 sound too dreamy, too much like l’Aprčs-midi d’un faune.

With no bar lines and enigmatic instructions, it’s hardly surprising that there is considerable variation in tempo and manner in performances of the Gnossiennes. Roland Pöntinen, who spreads them in two sets of three across his album, is mostly slightly faster than Pascal Rogé and, I think, sometimes misses some of the mystery.

Yitkin Seow, too, generally adopts fast tempi in these works – slightly faster than Pöntinen in No.1 – yet manages to maintain the mystery as he moves the music forward. I do think, however, that it benefits from a slower tempo, as with Pascal Rogé and Noriko Ogawa.

In the remaining Gnossiennes Ogawa and Seow are generally faster than Rogé without either missing any of the music’s mystery. I would be very happy with any of these three recordings on my Desert Island: better still because of the variation in the choice of works on each CD I’d want all three. It’s swings and roundabouts in individual Gnossiennes, but overall I’d rate Ogawa on a par with the other two. Also, she gains with the distinctive sound of the piano and the inclusion of No.7.

If you intend to buy just one Satie recording you will find more of the better-known works on the Seow and Rogé albums, both at mid-price. Ogawa is more recommendable to those prepared for the long haul; even so, all the music on the first volume should be of interest to the general collector too. The distinctive sound of the Érard is very well captured by the recording; surround-sound fans now have the option of downloading in 5.0 for the same price as stereo. Other providers who charge extra, often much more than the SACD, please take note. Jean-Pascal Vachon’s notes are an added incentive.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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