In fact, these performances, of Eric Tanguy’s Seneque, Dernier Jour and Erik Satie’s Socrate are capably performed in every respect and the recordings, from Radio France, are as fine as you could wish. Seneque is an imagined musing by the philosopher Seneca on his last day, full of bitterness at having served one of history’s most famous monsters, the Emperor Nero.
It’s performed by recitalist-actor Michel Blanc, with the Orchestre National de France under Alain Altinoglu. The more moving Socrate, based on Plato’s writings of Socrates’s last day before taking the hemlock, is sung by the fine lyrical tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, with the Ensemble Erwartung under Bernard Desgraupes. They are similarly themed works, but the Satie piece, which shows a very different Satie than we know from the ubiquitous piano works, resonates more with its understated, calm music. It is a perfect setting for the memoir of how a great man accepted his death.
The problem for English listeners is that both pieces are written with the music very clearly subordinated to the task of illuminating the words, instead of being an equal partner to the text as in opera. We are given the translated texts, but reading the translation does take away from the immediacy. In these works, the text is the thing. If not sung in the language of its listeners, we’re lost.