Monday 16 May 2016

A recording from Music and Media of piano works by Richard Fowles that draw inspiration from the music of Erik Satie make a fitting tribute to this unique composer on the 150th anniversary of his birth

Erik Satie (1866-1925) was surely one of the most eccentric yet naturally gifted of French composers. Born in Honfleur, Calvados, France he studied at the Paris Conservatory but dropped out, later taking work as a pianist in a café. His immediately recognisable, often witty style was a major influence on 20th-century French music.

Before taking up residence alone in Arcueil, a Paris suburb, he involved himself on the fringe of Christian sects including the Rosicrucian movement and had a stormy affair with the painter Suzanne Valadon. He later studied at the Schola Cantorum under Vincent d’Indy and Albert Roussel and was eventually adopted as the figurehead of the group of young composers known as Les Six.  Later the School of Arcueil, a group including Darius Milhaud, Henri Sauguet, and Roger Désormiere, was formed in his honour.

Despite being dismissed by musicians who misunderstood his irreverence and wit, Satie was nonetheless deeply admired by composers such as Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. His influence on French composers of the early 20th century and on the later school of Neoclassicism was immense.

Satie’s compositions include five ballets, choral music, songs and a large amount of piano music for which he is most remembered.

English composer Richard Fowles (b. 1989)  has written a number of works inspired by Erik Satie which have been recorded by pianist Christina McMaster for Music and Media  on a disc entitled Un Hommage à Erik.

MMC 111

Knossienne No. 1 is very much in the mould of Satie’s own Gnossienne though gently finding its own way and later finding a greater though gentle intensity. With
Knossienne No. 2 Fowles again finds moments of intensity to contrast with the gentle flow, this time with greater drama but always retaining elements of Satie’s language. Knossienne No. 3 brings the same kind of subtle variety that is often found in Satie, shifting harmonically through the most lovely passages.

The Andante of Biqui No. 1 has a gentle little theme that develops from the simplest of openings through passages of more incisive dramatic phrases, taking Satie’s related stylistic elements to a new level. The Lento takes us back to a gentle, simple idea that again develops an incisive, dynamic nature with firm chords before finding a calm coda.

Sea-Bird opens with a very Debussian theme, developing through rippling passages, pointed up by more dramatic moments, always with a French flavour and with a lovely rising phrase at the coda.

Delicate phrases open A Walk to Le Chat Noir on a Snowy Day, conveying snowflakes, before finding more of a flow. There are sudden dramatic changes before the resuming of a walking pace. Again there is much of a French flavour with moments of fine beauty with little rippling phrases, beautifully done by this pianist.

The Andante of Biqui No. 2 brings a melancholy little opening that soon finds a more dramatic stance with Fowles finding a lovely simplicity, a directness that would surely have appealed to Satie before moving into the Lento, a slow, hushed version of the theme that does find dynamic chords that contrast whilst developing some fine harmonies.

Monsieur Le Pauvre is a very Satie influenced piece and is full of little harmonies and phrases. Yet here Fowles still finds his own way, creating a new yet wholly idiomatic piece, gently meandering its way through some most lovely passages.

The Velvet Gentleman picks up on Satie’s well known appearance, impeccably dressed with bowler hat, umbrella and pince-nez.  The first of the three sections, His Bowler Hat is a faster flowing piece, again such a simple theme that evokes Satie. His Pince-Nez brings some terrific discords in a spiky little theme full of witty ideas. His Umbrella brings a repeated left hand motif over which a theme is quickly despatched, full of freshness and energy.  

The Andante of Biqui No. 3 has a gentle opening that is slowly broadened, rising in dynamics through some very fine broad phrases until moving into the Lento which has a hushed entry as the theme is slowly picked over. It slowly finds moments of increased drama with some exquisitely played passages before the hushed gentle coda.

Sylvie was inspired by a poem by J. P. Contamine de Latour (1867-1926) that Satie set to music. It has a gentle rocking motion out of which rises a fine melody that develops before a simple three note phrase to end.

These works form a fitting tribute to this unique composer on the 150th anniversary of his birth. There is much Satie here, a little Debussy and much French flavour – yet somehow perfectly unique. 

Christina McMaster has a fine touch bringing a delicacy as well as some impressively incisive moments, conjuring up a lovely atmosphere. She receives a close yet intimate recording and there are excellent booklet notes from the composer. 


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