Album Title: Erik Satie Avant-dernières Pensées
Performers: Alexandre Tharaud (piano) and friends
Label and #: Harmonia Mundi HMC 902017.18 (2 CDs)
Running time: 63'50"/63'07"
April/May 2008

I thought I'd never need another Satie recording. I am perfectly satisfied with Jean-Yves Thibaudet's complete solo album [Decca 473620-2] and the piano four-hand selection by Jean-Philippe Collard and Pascal Rogé [Decca 455401-2]. Looking further back, Jean-Pierre Armengaud's timeless single disc [Le Chant du Monde LDC 278.805] is one that I always treasure. And of course, the many EMI releases by Aldo Ciccolini/Gabriel Tacchino also add nice touches to the mix. No, I don't need another Satie recording. After all, it's only Satie, you know.

But this is Alexandre Tharaud. He is one of the few pianists I want to keep track of with every move of his, from Milhaud to Poulenc on Naxos to Rameu, Couperin, Ravel and Chopin on Harmonia Mundi. He is special. Not just his insightful reading and fresh approach to interpretations but also his programming. Take Chopin Valses for example. Instead of the usual opus by opus run-through, Tharaud took us through a mind-refreshing journey from his perspective of how these valses lead from one to another. And at the end, he played a bonus track of Mompou's reminiscence of Chopin to add a new dimension, almost from an objective point of view taking one step back.

To a certain extent, Tharaud took an equally intriguing approach in the programming of this Satie album. This time it's not just one bonus track but an entire bonus CD. Okay, I shouldn't mislead you. You actually have to pay the price for two CDs and you get one solo disc with Tharaud at the piano, and one Duos disc with Tharaud and friends joining him on vocals or instruments. Tharaud picked Satie's Avant-dernières Pensées (Penultimate Thoughts) as the title of this collection. Could that be merely an enigmatic Satiesan self mockery or does it reserve his right for final thoughts indeed?

Solo first. Satie couldn't be said to have been prolific yet it took Thibaudet's complete solo album five solid CDs. In a way, Tharaud's hand-picked 42 tracks sum up the Satie image more succinctly and instantly expose Satie's inventiveness. Take "Le Piège de Méduse" (Medusa's Trap) for example. It's been reported that Satie specified strips of paper to be inserted in the piano strings during the first performance of this little comic dance number of the straw-stuffed monkey and other mechanical characters. Tharaud took the idea further and stuffed his piano with paper, metal and plastic sheets and only he knows what else. Yes, it's John Cage's prepared piano with a French accent. (Thibaudet, Ciccolini and Armengaud in contrast all kept their pianos clean, tidy and 'unprepared'.)

Think again what you think you know about Satie. Does Heures secularise et instantanées (Age-old and instantaneous hours) occur to you as a French invention of minimalism? And Piccadilly the first ragtime by a French composer? Traces of Gottschalkian Latin dance rhythm are obvious in Gambades. And the mischievous Rossinian play-on-themes in the Embryons desséchés (Desiccated Embryos) prematurely adopted other composers' intellectual properties like Chopin's Funeral March and turned them into dry musical humour. The blatant display of Parisian ballroom glamour in Valse-Ballet and Poudre d'or (Gold Dust) is so unlike Satie and his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes. Talking about these ancient dances so undeniably Satie, Tharaud picked only one Gymnopédie and spread six Gnossiennes throughout the entire disc. I admire his clean, sensible touch and well-justified tempi, particularly the No.1 which is slightly faster than norm and therefore more fluid and spiritually cleansed; and the No.4 which is slower than the norm and therefore more mesmerizing in tone color. To sample Tharaud's Gnossienne No.1, watch it here.

The Duos disc embarks on three sets of four-handed piano pieces with Tharaud and Éric Le Sage, ranging from the theatrical Le Belle Excentrique and Cinéma (transcribed by Milhaud) to the satirical Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (Three pieces in the Form of Pear) which in fact comprise seven pieces in total as Satie's disdainful response to Debussy's suggestion that he should pay more attention to musical forms. The four café songs were sung by Tharaud's friend Juliette. Her unpolished yet candid tone give these unpretentious numbers a real breath of life. Tenor Jean Delescluse on the other hand demonstrates in seven short art songs that Satie was quite capable of writing beautiful melodies with Schubertian finesse.

German violinist Isabelle Faust won my vote with her sublime Beethoven concerto years ago and here reconfirms her artistic versatility with Chosevues à droite et à gauche sans lunettes (Things seen to right and to left without glasses). This wickedly sardonic set starts off emulating classical and romantic disciplines in a matter-of-fact manner but suddenly turns around to poke the establishment in the eye. You'll get the idea even from these spoofing titles: "Choral hypocrite", "Fugue à tâtons" (Groping Fugue) and "Fantasie musulaire". Faust and Tharaud are so unequivocally ouch that it must have hurt.

Admittedly all the other Satie recordings I've heard are excellent. But somehow Tharaud managed to find his own particular way to outshine them. I don't necessarily agree with the liner notes saying that Satie has been misunderstood or even misheard and now deserves a more serious listening. Reading too much into something simple and beautiful as Satie is not necessarily the correct approach to understand let alone re-evaluate the man. Tharaud's re-interpretation is not necessarily deeper than other but it does evoke more feelings. Coupled with Harmonia Mundi's recording team that is always faithful to music and truthful to audio, this is definitely the Satie collection to capture our highest accolade.

P.S. I almost overlooked the bonus tracks. On the back cover of the CD booklet, there's a private access code for streaming and downloading six bonus tracks from here.