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Eric SATIE (1866-1925)
Trois Mélodies (1886)
Les Anges [2:47]
Elégie [3:41]
Sylvie [3:38]
Trois Autres Mélodies (1889-1906)
Chanson [1:08]
Chanson médiévale [1:24]
Les Fleurs [1:53]
Hymne (1891) [4:34]
Socrate - Drame Symphonique en trois Parties avec Voix (1919)
Portrait de Socrate [5:49]
Les Bords d’Illissus [7:30]
Mort de Socrate [18:25]
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Reinbert de Leeuw (piano)
rec. September 2015, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum, The Netherlands
Texts not included
WINTER & WINTER 910 234-2 [50:51]

This recital of mélodies by Eric Satie has been issued to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The first seven songs are quite early compositions. Hymne is, I believe, a setting of words by Satie himself which though written in 1891 does not seem to have been published until 1968. I’m sorry if this seems vague but the documentation consists of a biography of Satie which, while useful, manages to say almost nothing about the music presented on the disc. Such information as I’ve been able to glean comes from the internet, so I hope it’s accurate. The text of Hymne, a salute to the Flag - of France, I presume - is somewhat overwrought in its sentiments. The music, however, is slow and rapt.

In fact most of the individual songs are slow-moving. Each of the Trois Mélodies features slow and dreamy extended vocal lines over a fairly simple chordal piano accompaniment. In Les Anges the line “calme, sous la voûte infinite” (‘calm, under the infinite vault’) may be the key to the way Satie has approached the text. His music really does suggest that “les anges planent dans l’éther” (‘the angels drift in the ether’). Best of all is Sylvie. The style is similar to the two companion songs and Barbara Hannigan makes the music hypnotically beautiful. This was the first song I heard from the disc – during a BBC Radio 3 broadcast – and I was smitten by it. These three songs are all settings of words by José-Maria Patricio Contamine de Latour (1867-1926).

Contamine de Latour also provides the words for two of the Trois Autres Mélodies; the exception is Chanson médiévale for which the text was provided by the French poet and man of letters, Catulle Mendès (1841-1909). Chanson is livelier than the settings we’ve heard so far and Hannigan’s eager delivery brings it to life. Chanson médiévale tells a fairly simple little tale and is quite charming. Among the first seven songs on the disc Les Fleurs strikes me as the closest in style to a “conventional” late-nineteenth century mélodie; the setting seems to mix languor with innocence.

The principal item on the programme is Socrate. What an unconventional composition this is. Satie was commissioned to write it by Princesse Edmond de Polignac and it exists, I believe, in two versions, one for solo voice and one for four female voices: two sopranos and two mezzos. The accompaniment can be provided either by a chamber orchestra or, as here, by piano. The only other recordings of which I’m aware are by tenors, one of whom was the great Hugues Cuénod (review ~ review).

What makes Socrate so unusual is Satie’s choice of subject and texts. There are three sections. The first, Portrait de Socrate, is a setting of an extract from Plato’s Phaedrus. In the absence of information in the Winter and Winter booklet I drew on Jonathan Woolf’s review of the Cuénod recording from which I learned that what is sung in this section is a eulogy of Socrates by his favourite pupil, Alcibiades. There follows Les bords de l'Ilissus ("The banks of the Illisus”), which sets words from Plato’s Phaedrus. Jonathan Woolf, who is clearly better read than I am, identifies this as a dialogue between Socrates and another of his pupils, Phaedrus. The third and final section is longer than the other two put together. Mort de Socrate is, again, a setting of Plato, this time from his Phaedo. Here, Socrates’ death – or, rather, his execution in prison by the judicially ordered self-administration of poison – is related by Phaedro, a fellow philosopher. Throughout the score Satie uses a French translation of Plato by the French philosopher, Victor Cousin (1792-1867).

We learn from the notes that Satie “intended [Socrate] to be white, lucid, transparent and even, in the extreme, fragile, echoing the philosopher’s understanding of our common human fate.” He succeeded in that aim. He described the piece as a ‘symphonic drama’ but I confess that I don’t quite understand how the selected sections of text fit together – or perhaps they’re not supposed to. The first section is a eulogy in praise of Socrates but it’s a eulogy delivered in his presence rather than after his death, because at the end of the section Socrates acknowledges the praise directed towards him and that the baton, as it were, has passed to him so that he can now pay tribute to the person seated next to him. Then in the second section Socrates and his pupil, Phaedrus, are strolling by the banks of the Ilisus, conversing as they go, and looking for somewhere to sit. The music here is, I think, in compound time and it’s ingratiating.

Quite how these two sections prepare us for Mort de Socrate I’m unsure; perhaps they’re not intended as a preparation in the sense that symphonic movements might be. Phaedro relates how he visited Socrates in prison and describes the philosopher’s stoic approach to his fate. Phaedro goes on to relate how Socrates took the poison he was offered and he describes his friend’s last moments and his dignity in death. The music to which Satie sets this narration is almost detached in character. Reflecting, perhaps, the stoicism of Socrates, Satie’s music is objective. For much of the setting no strong emotions are displayed though the intensity does increase somewhat from the moment (13:00) when Socrates takes the cup of poison (“Socrate porta la coupe à ses lèvres”). In saying that the music is almost detached I don’t mean that as a negative criticism. I believe the musical style is of a piece with the sense of the text and Satie’s way draws the listener in: his music may not be overtly dramatic but it exerts an undeniable pull.

Barbara Hannigan delivers the music of all three movements calmly and with expert judgement. Not only does Satie eschew conventional emotive devices in this setting he also deliberately restricts his singer. So Hannigan is not required to call upon anything like the range of tonal colour that she needed in her other recent release, Hans Abrahamsen’s remarkable and compelling let me tell you (review). Yet, even though she doesn’t have occasion to deploy anything like her full vocal armoury her performance is in its own – and very different – way just as compelling as it was in the Abrahamsen.

The performances throughout this recital are very good. The purity and clarity of Barbara Hannigan’s singing never falters. Once or twice I detected signs that she’s not a Francophone but overall she puts over the French texts very convincingly. The piano parts in the early songs are on the plain side but Reinbert de Leeuw is consistently “with” his singer throughout the recital. The sound is good; the engineers have achieved clarity and also a good balance between the two performers. The recording is quite clearly studio-based but that’s not inappropriate; too much resonance might have been a detriment in this repertoire. Once or twice I had the impression, perhaps wrongly, that the sound was cut off quite promptly at the end of a track.

The documentation is a mixed bag. The notes offer a decent potted biography of the composer but with the exception of a brief mention of Socrate there’s no discussion of any of the music. Since these pieces will be unfamiliar to many listeners I think that’s a missed opportunity. Also regrettable is the absence of texts and translations. These are available on the Winter & Winter website but that’s nowhere near as convenient as having them to hand in printed form and the texts are essential, especially when listening to Socrate.

This is an important and interesting release and a fine tribute to Erik Satie in his anniversary year.

John Quinn



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