SATIE, POULENC Le comble de la distinction
Of all the ill-advised and inappropriate strategies to deploy when performing the solo piano music of Erik Satie, pretending that such pieces as Trois Gymnopédies, Sept Gnossiennes and Sonatine bureaucratique might benefit from being brushed with 19th-century Romanticism tops the list of interpretative taboos.
From the get-go, Bruno Fontaine’s Chopin-tinged Satie fails to add up. That delicate – admittedly nebulous – balance between keeping your steely distance while employing a touch that can move beyond the erotic into fetishising the relationship between fingers that caress keys – in other words the hallmark of good Satie playing – is utterly lacking here. Fontaine sets a moderate tempo for the Gymnopédies but has a tendency to shapeshift the pulse, at times nudging the rhythmic flow towards a Viennese waltz, the playing too overt, never clandestine enough. The second Gymnopédie goes awry when Fontaine takes Satie’s sudden fortissimo as licence for bombast. And matters don’t improve. Fontaine’s lumbering lays waste to the harmonic hide-and-seek of Sept Gnossiennes and Avant-dernières pensées, while Sonatine bureaucratique projects raw self-importance in a way I’m sure Satie didn’t intend.
The Trois Gymnopédies feature also on David Jalbert’s Satie-meets-Poulenc disc and this represents a whole other class of Satie interpretation. Jalbert’s Gymnopédies are discreet and contained, busy with absence, massaged deeply from within the keys. Then Jalbert pulls off the chanson réaliste vibe of Satie’s parlour song ‘Je te veux’ with pure balletic elegance – playing that oozes hedonistic charm.
And this aspect of Satie’s art connects convincingly with Poulenc’s Les soirées de Nazelles (1936), a suite of portraits of friends that ends by taking a musical selfie. Mouvements perpétuels (1918) rebounds out of the dry, deadpan wit of Les Six and throughout these pieces Jalbert keeps the music crisp, frisky, doggedly on the move. His phrasing and general mood music seem keen to remind us that Poulenc’s Nocturnes (1929-38) represent a hat-tip towards Robert Schumann – their emotional ambiguity perched between whimsy and nostalgia.