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Tharaud Champions Satie

available at Amazon
Erik Satie: Avant-dernières pensées, A. Tharaud and Friends

(released on February 10, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902017.18

Online scores:
Erik Satie
When it comes to a list of recorded achievements made by the age of 40, few pianists have succeeded like Alexandre Tharaud. Since his first recording for the Harmonia Mundi label in 2001, and before that on Naxos, Tharaud has released a series of discs, many of which are essential listening for any collector. He has shown a special affinity for two areas of repertory, the Baroque (Rameau, Couperin, and extraordinary Bach) and French music of the early 20th century (Poulenc and Debussy cello sonatas with Jean-Guihen Queyras, Ravel, Poulenc, and Milhaud), although he has made a very pleasing detour into the 19th century, with discs of the preludes and waltzes of Chopin and some Schubert. When I spoke with Tharaud, informally, after his Washington recital at La Maison Française last October (which I reviewed for the Washington Post), he told me about this new Satie disc, which he had just recorded earlier that spring. The recording has many delights, a few dogs, and much that reinforces my impression of Satie the composer -- witty, quirky, and sometimes off-putting. Certainly, as Tharaud and friends play him, Satie is worth hearing.

The first disc is devoted to the solo piano music, arranged in a program around the famous Gnossiennes, played just as they should be, languorous but simple, with few adjustments of the gentle, undulating -- but not oily -- pace. The best definition of what a Gnossienne is, to my knowledge, is an imagined dance named for a woman of Knossos in Crete (a Gnossien is a resident of Knossos). Like the Gymnopédies (one of them is included here), an equally mysterious word that may or may not mean a naked dance, their unusual scalar vocabulary and free, vaguely metered rhythmic sense may be an evocation of or tribute to imagined Greek music. To represent a much more extensive oeuvre, Tharaud's selections feature the many sides of Satie's style, including the satirical (Véritables Préludes flasques), jazz-influenced (the rag Le Piccadilly), surreal (Descriptions automatiques, including the Habanera-like Sur un vaisseau), winkingly postmodern (the ridiculous Beethoven parody in endless hammered cadences in Embryons desséchés), and experimental (the prepared piano jangling like percussion and banjo, in the seven pieces from Le piège de Méduse).

A second disc features pieces requiring two musicians, to mixed success. The four-hands piano works (Trois morceaux en forme de poire, La Belle Excentrique, and Cinéma), with pianist Éric Le Sage, are a delight to have in my collection, as are lesser-known works for tenor (the clear-voiced Jean Delescluse) and violin (the luscious Stradivarius of Isabelle Faust). Poor trumpeter David Guerrier is heard for only about 15 seconds at the end of La statue retrouvée. It was an ingenious idea to use the rougher voice of cabaret singer Juliette, and her distinctive works so well in the comic songs like Chez le docteur, but less so in the ballads like Je te veux, where a more refined sound is missed. At the end of the final track (5:30, after long silence), some uncredited words are spoken (by Tharaud?): "J'ai plus de plaisir à mesurer un son que je n'en ai à l'entendre. [...] Que n'ai-je pesé ou mesuré ? Tout de Beethoven, tout de Verdi, etc. C'est très curieux. [...] Passons. Je reviendrai sur ce sujet." (I take greater pleasure in measuring a sound than I do in hearing it. [...] What have I not weighed or measured? All of Beethoven, all of Verdi, etc. It's very strange. [...] Let's move on. I will come back to this subject). It turns out that these are a few lines spliced together from Satie's Mémoires d'un amnésique (Memoirs of an amnesiac). Let us hope it is a sign of another Satie album to come from Tharaud and Co.



Robert said...

I actually thought that the rendition of "Je te veux"came off as the best of the songs that Juliette sang in the set. But, all around, I have to agree that the solo piano CD was the better of the two efforts. A touch surprising given how well Tharaud worked with Queyras in the French duos CD.

As a side note, did you see the extras you could get at the website for the piece? You get the code from your CD case if you got a hard copy (I got it on iTunes, sent an email to Harmonia Mundi, and they very promptly got back with a code I could use. Great service) and put it in the section that says "Bonus." Voila, free music!

Charles T. Downey said...

Fair enough. That song certainly can work as a cabaret piece, a whiskey-soaked, down-on-your-luck paean of lust. Unfortunately for my ears, I have a memory of this recording of the song by Jessye Norman, all polish and refinement, against which Juliette is just not going to cut it.

As for the extra bits, I could not get the Web site to work the couple times I tried it. I have to admit that I am suspicious of these freebie Web sites, assuming that they must be put in place just for the free marketing or for something nefarious like putting adware on my computer.

Robert said...

I can imagine how hearing Jessye Norman would prejudice your ears. She'll do that with just about anything.

And as to the freebie site, it's worth a few more tries. There were no ill effects on my computer after using it, and while not as great as the album selections, the free music was worth hearing. You could try emailing Harmonia Mundi and seeing if they could just send the files if the site doesn't work. They were helpful with me, and it wouldn't surprise me if they did that.