Of all the oddballs in classical music, the French composer Erik Satie surely takes the cake. He was an artistic visionary and a bona fide eccentric, a friend to occultists, surrealists, and Dadaists, and a self-dubbed ‘phonometrist’. To describe him as ahead of his time would be something of an understatement. He wrote furniture music and produced a string of other musical experiments that prefigured Postmodernism.
London-based Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa has recorded Satie’s complete set of works for piano for Sweden’s enterprising BIS label, and in this second volume there’s not a Gymnopedie in sight – not even Je te veux. The curious listener will gain a more rounded understanding of this very unique genius through works like the Sports et Divertissements (Sports and Hobbies), and Préludes Flasques pour un Chien (Flabby Preludes for a dog). The Trois Préludes du Fils des Étoiles (Three Preludes from The Son of the Stars) are particularly interesting, sounding as though they might have been sketched by that other French musical dreamer, Olivier Messiaen.
The disc is almost entirely composed of miniatures and, whether strange or serious, each gives a perspective on Satie’s musical nature: mock-traditionalist, austere, and reverent, with his curious mixture of rambling ostinati, Parisian cosmopolitanism and cabaret tunes. The overall effect of these compositions is of effortless simplicity: each work comes from a single idea, which Satie weaves into being without caring from whence it came or where it will go.
Ogawa’s performance is articulate, restrained and, like Satie himself, eloquent. The whole volume is performed on a ‘period’ instrument – an 1890 Érard piano – so we can almost hear the genius at work. Satie called himself a Gymnopedist, but the world needs to discover that there was more to the composer than these three beguiling dances. Taking a dip into Ogawa’s collection would be an excellent start.