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Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Piano Music - Volume 1
Gnossiennes (1889-1897) [18:57]
Le Piccadilly (1904) [1:28]
Chapitres tournés en tous sens (1913) [5:14]
Avant-dernières pensées (1915) [2:52]
Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois (1913) [4:43]
Sonatine bureaucratique (1917) [3:48]
Poudre d’or (1900) [4:41]
Embryons desséchés (1913) [6:09]
Descriptions automatiques (1913) [5:14]
Heures séculaires et instantanées (1914) [3:39]
Prélude en tapisserie (1906) [2:06]
Les trois valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté (1914) [3:25]
Je te veux (Valse) [5:23]
Trois Gymnopédies (1888) [10:03]
Noriko Ogawa (1890 Érard Grand Piano, No. 69351)
rec. August/September 2015, J Studio, Tokyo College of Music, Japan
Reviewed as a 24/96 stereo download from eClassical (also available in 5.0 surround)
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2215 SACD [78:02]

The eccentric French composer and pianist Erik Satie’s 150th birthday has yielded a number of recordings, both old and new. Decca have reissued Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s set of the solo piano music; and then there’s Sony’s 13-CD box, Erik Satie and Friends, not to mention an Erato one, The Sound of Erik Satie. In 2015 Aparté released a recital featuring Bruno Fontaine at the keyboard (AP116), while Brilliant have just given us the complete piano music with Jeroen and Sandra van Veen (review). Also just in time for the party is a selection of mélodies from soprano Barbara Hannigan and her accompanist Reinbert de Leeuw (review).

So, a pretty decent celebration thus far. Now we have this, the first instalment of Ogawa’s planned traversal of Satie’s solo piano music. What distinguishes her approach from that of her rivals is that she’s eschewed a modern grand in favour of an 1890 Érard. And why not, for it’s an instrument that Satie would have known from his early days as both composer and performer. Not only that, period instruments have a habit of illuminating the music in unexpected ways. However, it’s a very distinctive sound that won’t please those used to hearing these pieces played on a modern Yamaha or Steinway.

Satie’s teachers at the Paris Conservatoire may have thought him talentless, but the composer – a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde and later a member of the group known as Les Six – would have the last laugh. Indeed, a wicked sense of humour lies at the heart of much of his output, especially his surreal ballets Parade, Mercure and Relâche. But it’s the solo piano music – daring, quirky and utterly original – that distils his extraordinary talent. True, the Gymnopédies have become irritatingly ubiquitous, but then Satie – who coined the term ‘furniture music’ – wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at being heard in lifts, supermarkets and call-centre queues.

The Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies, written between 1888 and 1897, are prime examples of what the booklet author Jean-Pascal Vachon calls ‘anti-virtuosity’. Don’t be fooled, for behind this unassuming exterior lurks a darting intellect. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the unexpected harmonies, repeated figures and subtle inflections of these seven Gnossiennes. As expected, the Érard adds extra piquancy to the writing; indeed, the instrument’s lighter tone and added clarity allow one to ‘hear through’ the textures in a way that’s not always possible on a more fulsome modern piano.

Ogawa plays these early pieces with a sure, unhurried sense of style; she’s also rhythmically adept, articulating the sixth Gnossienne very well indeed. In spite of these felicities I yearned for a little more body to the sound. That’s much less of an issue with the three Gymnopédies, which Ogawa dispatches with a wistful charm that belies the forensic nature of both the playing and the recording. I’ve no doubt Take5’s Marion Schwebel has faithfully captured the unique timbres of this elderly Érard. In short, nothing has been added, nothing subtracted, and that’s the way it should be.

This pianist also brings out the wit and sparkle of the jolly little march Le Piccadilly, whose shape and character remind me so much of Louis Moreau Gottschalk on the one hand and James Scott on the other. She goes on to deliver three very different ‘narratives’ in Chapitres tournés en tous sens (Chapters turned every which way). Now coruscating now inward and maddeningly circular these loopy little pieces are just delightful. Indeed, the faux pomposity at the end often makes me laugh out loud. Happily, Ogawa is just as alive to the knockabout humour of Satie’s music as she is to its strange, often prescient soundscapes.

Speaking of influences and foreshadowings the urgent declamations at the heart of Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois (Sketches and exasperations of a big wooden fellow) remind me of early Stravinsky. Dedicated to Debussy, Dukas and Roussel, the three-movement Avant-dernières pensées (Next-to-last thoughts) finds the composer at his disarming and affectionate best. Here and in Embryons desséchés (Desiccated embryos) Ogawa gives each movement a strength and shape all of its own.

This Érard may not have the sheer weight or rounded delivery of a modern instrument, but Satie’s louder and more animated passages – in the third of the three waltzes, for instance – come across with unexpected bite and brio. Contrast that with the comparative delicacy of the first two movements of Descriptions automatiques (Automatic descriptions), where Ogawa is most beguiling. In the third the Érard’s slightly hollow tone gives the music an unusual cast. As for the self-explanatory Sonatine bureaucratique it’s a virtuosic little number, to which this pianist responds with commendable dash and drive.

There’s so much to savour in this judiciously planned recital, and even if you already have Thibaudet, Fontaine, the van Veens or anyone else on your shelves I urge you to make room for this bracing newcomer. It’s well played, nicely recorded and, perhaps most important, it’s an affectionate tribute to a strange but fascinating talent. Bon anniversaire, M. Satie!
At once piquant and palate cleansing; Ogawa at her considerable best.

Dan Morgan



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