Noriko Ogawa plays Satie
John Cage’s mantra that Erik Satie’s structures were based around ‘lengths of time rather than harmonic relations’ (as quoted in the newly published Selected Letters of John Cage) ought not to be misconstrued. Satie was no innocent and his ability to massage harmony into relationships as much conceptual as functional relied on impeccable harmonic instincts that rarely let him down. But the surface of his music often sounds as if it is holding its composer in contempt. Wouldn’t this piece be great, the notes snipe, if it wasn’t for this naïf harmonist? Let’s resolve this next cadence properly! Oh, zut alors, he’s missed it…again. And such layers of irony, detachment and internal critique are all part of a knowing game plan with which Satie interpreters need to engage.
Neither of these two new releases quite nails those bewitchingly eccentric kinks as persuasively as existing contenders like Aldo Ciccolini, Claire Chevallier or Philip Corner, although the Cologne-based pianist Olga Scheps comes tantalisingly close. The programming of Noriko Ogawa’s first volume (I presume of Satie’s complete piano music, although that is not stated explicitly) is certainly a draw with likes of the rarely heard Embryons desséchés and Heures séculaires et instantanées placed in the mix alongside evergreens such as the Gnossiennes, Sonatine bureaucratique, Trois Gymnopédies and Je te veux. But Ogawa too often carries on as if it’s harmonic business as usual: her Gymnopédies have a slight air of triumphalism, while Le Piccadilly (Marche) and Avant-dernières pensées feel too much like generic neo-classicism.
Ogawa performs on an 1890 Erard but attacks it as if she’s manoeuvring a modern grand: the subtle palette of painterly colours and brush-strokes that characterise Claire Chevallier’s compelling album (Zig-Zag Territoires, 11/09) shows how the instrument can be made to resonate in sympathy with Satie’s music. Olga Scheps plays on a new-fashioned grand piano, and even since I mentioned her in the previous paragraph I’ve warmed to her approach. Now the Gymnopédies feel appropriately stately and objectified, while her Sarabande in F minor emphasises that actually F minor is being kept on only as a retainer: Scheps keeps Satie’s harmonically detached chords floating in a continuum of non sequiturs.
The sixth Gnossienne, which appears on both discs, turns up something of a mystery. Neatly dispatched by Ogawa in just over a minute (there’s no tempo indication in Satie’s score but he gives a preferred duration of 1'20"), Scheps stretches its structure to 2'30". I’m not certain why – lengths of time over harmony taken too far, perhaps?