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Erik Satie: Avant-Dernières Pensées
Alexandre Tharaud, piano

CD 1: "Solo"
CD 2: "Duos": with Éric Le Sage, piano; Juliette, chanteuse; Isabelle Faust, violin; Jean Delescluse, tenor; David Guerrier, trumpet
Review By Joe Milicia

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  Alexandre Tharaud has been recording a wide variety of music for harmonia mundi, from Bach and Couperin (on piano) to Chopin, Ravel (the complete solo works) and the contemporary Thierry Pécou. His new two-CD Satie album is elegant in several ways: certainly in Theraud's performance, but also in harmonia mundi's packaging design, including a 76-page booklet, and in concept, with the first CD devoted to pieces for solo piano, and the second a collection of "duos": for piano four-hands, piano/violin, piano/trumpet (for one very short piece), and voice with piano accompaniment.

"Elegance" in performance does not preclude warmth, and Tharaud’s playing is not in the "deadpan" style some other pianists use for Satie: a sort of tongue-in-cheek neutral style that can be almost spooky and brings out the avant-garde qualities of Satie. Without sentimentalizing the composer, Tharaud plays even some of the most gnomic (and famous) pieces, like the Gymnopédie No. 1 and the first two Gnossiennes, with some of the feeling one might expect in a performance of, say, a Chopin Prelude, along with clarity and sheer beauty of tone. The more salon-like pieces, the quasi-pop waltzes and galops, are played with gusto but not parodistic exaggeration.

Pieces from early to late Satie are included; from 1888 (the first Gymnopédie) to 1924 (a piano-four-hands arrangement by Darius Milhaud of the Cinéma interlude from the ballet Relâche). The "Solo" CD scatters the six Gnossiennes throughout the program, beginning and ending with the first and last respectively, but otherwise does not separate the movements of those weirdly-named suites, such as the Veritable Flaccid Preludes (for a dog) and the Three Distinguished Waltzes of the Disgusted Dandy, not to mention the suite that gives the album its title, Second-Last Thoughts (consisting of a more reasonably named Idyll, Dawn-Song, and Meditation). One particular surprise on this disc is the use of a "prepared piano" for the seven pieces from the 1914 Dada-like stage production Le Piège de Méduse (Medusa's Trap), originally intended to accompany the dances of a mechanical monkey. According to the booklet notes, for the first performance Satie slid sheets of paper between the piano strings to create a "straw-like" sound; Tharaud goes him one better by adding pieces of plastic and metal too, creating sounds which will remind the listener of the prepared-piano pieces of Satie-admirer John Cage--though evidently Cage "invented" the technique without knowing that Satie had been there, done that.

The "Duos" CD opens with another of Satie's most familiar works, Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (Three Pieces [well, really seven] in the Shape of a Pear), for piano four-hands, with Tharaud joined by Éric Le Sage, a specialist in both Schumann and Poulenc. Later on in the program the two pair up again for La Belle Excentrique and the Milhaud arrangement of Cinéma. Besides (needless to say) playing as one, they bring both a no-nonsense vigor and an ingratiating wit to the music.

A particular striking feature of the "Duos" disc is the performance of four cabaret songs, featuring the chanteuse Juliette. The most famous of these music-hall tunes, Je teveux, is given a very curious reading (at least, to the ears of a listener not very knowledgeable about music-hall performance traditions): Juliette, who is in her 40s, delivers the song, especially the high notes, in a frail, quavering though certainly characterful voice, a bit like Hermione Gingold in Gigi. She sounds more robust in the other three songs, and Tharaud is swaggering (though not overly so) in his accompaniments, whether in waltz or march rhythms. A fifth cabaret song, Allons-y Chochotte, originally written for the same female performer as some of the others, is given to the tenor Jean Delescluse. Perhaps this is because the persona of the song is male — or because Delescluse, a "legit" tenor well known in French opera houses, is steeped in the style of the French popular chanson (as distinct from the mélodie, the art song) and delivers a spectacular rendition of the song, suitably placed as the finale for the CD program. Delescluse also sings, with lovely voice in a more art-song style, several mélodies of Satie, most of which have tricky wordplay. One is grateful for harmonia mundi's supplying the original texts with translations and even footnotes.

The "Duos" CD also contains some rarely recorded violin pieces, including a suite whose title translates as Things seen to the right and the left (without glasses), with brief movements called Hypocritical Chorale, Groping Fugue, and Muscular Fantasy. The chorale is modal and "minimalist" — it could have been written yesterday. The fugue ceases to be a fugue after a few bars — it seems to want to turn into a music-hall piece — while the fantasy is playful, a sort of mini-anthology of violin flourishes. A 3-minute L'Embarquementpour Cythère is somewhat more substantial, though delicate--seemingly melancholy or wistful in its gently rocking ¾-time. Isabelle Faust is the more than capable partner to Tharaud. Finally, there is a very short piece for keyboard (originally organ but here recorded for the first time on piano) and for about 12 seconds a trumpet. Titled La Statue retrouvée, it could be called a throwaway piece, but it's fun to hear once.

The booklet essay on Satie's originality and on the works on the program is excellent; my only disappointment is that author Nicholas Southon comments on the many pieces in the order of their composition, which is of little use if one is seeking information while following along through the utterly different order of the two CDs. (It would have helped if the CD listings had included dates of composition.) But this is a small quibble in comparison with the excellence of the performances of Tharaud and his friends and the superb realism of the recorded sound.





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