‘If Satie’s piano pieces are so easy, why are they so badly played?’ asks Philip Corner in the chunky booklet that accompanies his back-to-basics performances of Satie evergreens, including Gnossienne No 1 and the Gymnopédies as well as some rarely heard piano compositions such as Ogives, Fanfares of the Rose and Cross and Empire’s Diva. Corner is himself a composer whose aesthetic directions changed for ever when he met John Cage during the 1960s. Satie’s compositional objectivity was an important lesson from the past for New York School composers such as Cage and Feldman, and Corner’s set aims to reclaim Satie from those who perform him as aromatherapy for the cochlea – ‘those who indulge [in added expressivity] sound ridiculous,’ Corner adds, before suggesting such sexing-up is unnecessary because in this music ‘nothing is lacking’.
Corner is not, of course, the first pianist to identify an apparent disconnect between Satie’s cool detachment and that tendency to sentimentalise his music. Claire Chevallier’s excellent recital disc (ZZT, 11/09) offers a necessary antidote to Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s unpalatably sweet Satie (Decca, 3/03). But Corner takes matters a whole stage further.
Chevallier’s Ogive I lasts 2'25", Corner’s 4'13". His Gnossienne No 1 clocks in at 10'05" compared to Chevallier’s 4'48". And even when they do fall into broad alignment over matters of tempo – the Gymnopédies match almost to the second – there is a designer austerity about Corner’s touch that recalibrates our view of Satie. An argument could be constructed (file under Bernstein’s ‘Nimrod’) accusing Corner of deliberately distorting Satie’s intentions to pursue wider ideological agenda. But Satie – the composer of Vexations, who liked to immerse himself in occultist Masonic-style rituals – would surely have approved of Corner’s poetic licence, the patient air he circulates through Satie’s structures reconnecting us with his unholy alliance of plain-spoken melody and harmonic innuendo.