Erik Satie – 3 Gymnopedies & Other Piano Works (Pascal Roge)

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1. ”Gymnopedie No. 1” is fucking ineffable.

2. Ditto “Gnossienne No. 1”.

3. The other two Gymnopedie’s are, in essence, sequels of “Gymnopedie No. 1”. Make of that what you will.

4. The same cannot be said about the Gnossiennes: the third one works up a much more distinct melody; the fourth one has a much more active left hand; the fifth one is faster and less dour; the sixth one is superfluous.

5. Not out of choice, I started playing piano at age 4 and continued until I passed Royal Conservatory of Music’s Grade 10 sometime in high school and dropped it until a few years’ later where I started playing piano for fun instead of for other people. During that time, I played the usual suspects (ie. my Grade 10 exam consisted of Chopin, Mozart and Debussy, and others that I cannot recall) and whoever my piano teacher suggested/insisted I play – never once did Satie come in front of me. In fact, I didn’t know about Erik Satie’s existence until I listened to Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, then worked my way through Brian Eno’s first four avant-pop albums (for lack of a better term, though that’s as high a compliment I can think of in two words to describe them), then worked my way through Brian Eno’s ambient albums while reading about ambient in general. (Alternatively, Satie has also been all but quoted by high profile artists like Japan and Aphex Twin; I would have heard about him eventually, is what I’m saying.)

Listening to him years later, it’s obvious the reason why Satie never made it into my repertoire is because a lot of his music is bafflingly simple to play, which isn’t a criticism in itself since complexity doesn’t necessarily mean good (though some people certainly think so); not everyone has to be Liszt (whose piano pieces, are, by contrast, punishingly if not impossible to play).

6. Because of Satie’s simplicity, he’s easy to like. His songs are often short (all but 3 of the 18 that appear in this collection are under 5 minutes, and the longest one – “Embryons desseches” – is often separated into three distinct tracks on other collections; his quiet compositions often blend into the background, and his loud ones, or rather, the ones that employ big dynamic shifts (ie. “Le Picadilly”) pop.

7. Because of Satie’s simplicity, the best collection of Satie’s works will be the one that offers the most breadth assuming (a) the recording is good and (b) the performer doesn’t butcher the performance. I’ve read a lot of critiques about various Satie performances that point people to other Satie performances and euhhhhh…for the most part, it doesn’t really matter. My favorite as of writing: Klara Komendi’s Piano Works (Selection), which contains the Gymnopedie’s, Gnossienne’s and “Embryons desséchés” found here in addition to 24 (!!!!!) others, and I much prefer how Komendi keeps the dynamic shifts as marked on “Gnossienne No. 1” whereas Pascal Rogé plays it as an ambient piece.

8. That being said, this collection specifically is nicely sectioned into two logical halves, with “Embryons desséchés” rounding out the “first half” (that begins with the Gymnopedies) and the bouncier “Le Picadilly” rounding off the “second half” (that begins with the Gnossiennes). This is in contrast to Bojan Gorisek’s Erik Satie: Complete Piano Works, Vol. 1 which starts off with the light-hearted “Valse-Ballet Op. 62” and “Fantaise-Valse” (some of Satie’s poppiest, practically purely driven by dynamic shifts) before slowing down for the next 40-minutes.

9. The non-Gymnopedies and non-Gnossiennes and non-Nocturne are generally speaking, more spirited, harder to play, and funnier (which you could tell from the titles alone: “Sonatine bureaucratique”, which borrows from Clementi’s “Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36, No. 1”; “4 Preludes flasques” (full translated name: Four flabby preludes for a dog), which, unlike a lot of songs here and in Satie’s repertoire, forgoes repetition; “Embryons desséchés” (translation: desiccated embryos)).

Of these, my favorite is “Embryons desséchés.” All three of the pieces (combined here) are named after various crustaceans, that directly satires other musicians; “d’Edriophthalma” (the second section) sounds like what would have happened if Chopin were writing a funeral for shrimp and “da Podophthalma”’s coda is called “Obligatory cadenza” and ends and ends and ends, mocking the grand, ultra-fortissimo finishes common in romanticism. It’s without a doubt, the funniest thing I’ve heard in classical music so far.

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