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Composer Philip Corner illustrates his ideas about how Satie's piano music should be played

Music Review: Philip Corner – ‘Satie Slowly’

Although French composer Erik Satie (1866–1925) is not usually thought of as a major figure in the musical pantheon—certainly not a composer to be mentioned with the likes of a Bach, a Beethoven, nor even a Ravel or a Debussy, some of his worksatie has garnered a good deal of attention, some not so much. Along comes American composer Philip Corner, who has a theory about why Satie’s work hasn’t been given the respect he believes it deserves. The problem, he explains, is that his compositions are deceptively simple. They need to be allowed to speak for themselves. Excessive embroidery destroys them.  Performers tend to overcompensate for their simplicity by indulging in what he calls “added expressivity.” Their innate purity, their delicacy is lost. What remains sounds “ridiculous.”

Satie Slowly, Corner’s two-CD set of 17 of Satie’s piano pieces, is his attempt to show the world how this music should be played. Normally I would applaud the attempt to bring almost any attention to Satie and his work. His music is both original, inventive, and often quite accessible. His more popular pieces—the Gnossiennes and The Gymnopedies—are elegant masterpieces, and even his lesser-known pieces are memorable. The problem with Corner’s interpretations is that when he says “slowly,” he means “slowly.”

Much of Satie’s music is notated “lent.” The Three Gymnopedies, for example, are marked “Lent et Douloureux,” “Lent et Triste,” and “Lent et Grave.” There is “lent” and there is “lent,” but Corner’s idea of “lent” is “lent cosmic.” Moreover, in line with his ideas about why Satie is played badly, he makes sure to avoid any of that added expressivity, and I must admit I am a sucker for that added expressivity. I, for one, miss it. Perhaps because I’ve gotten so used to hearing the piece played more dynamically, perhaps because he is so mechanically tied to his theory, I find his performance flat and emotionless.

Even when it comes to his performance of pieces I am less well acquainted with, I find his pacing maddeningly slow and his playing coldly intellectual. Perhaps he is right about how this music should be played. The Satie Slowly set includes a 44-page booklet explaining Corner’s ideas and discussing each of the individual compositions. His arguments are reasonable; his analyses cogently careful. Still, when it comes to the music, I find it impossible not to miss the emotional expressivity.

The first disc includes the four Ogives, the first of the six Gnossiennes, The Feast Given by the Knights to Honour a Young Girl, the first two of his Preludes of the Nazarene, and The Gothic Dances. The second disc begins with The Three Gymnopiedies. Fanfares of the Rosecruxion, Chorales, and the one piece defying Corner’s “slowly” thesis, Empire’s Diva conclude the album. This last, by the way, gives the listener some idea of what the album could have been, had it not been so slavishly devoted to an intellectual critique.

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