Philip Corner: Satie Slowly
Unseen Worlds

How much more slowly pianist Philip Corner renders Satie's material on this double-CD set becomes most audible, naturally, during the performances of the French composer's more familiar pieces. A case in point is Corner's treatment of “Gnossienne No.1,” which at ten minutes is conspicuously longer than both a six-minute version by Reinbert de Leeuw and a seven-minute one by Ulrich Gumpert. Corner's seemingly extreme approach isn't rooted in perversion, however; with respect to this particular piece, he writes, “I think the tempo must find that exact point where movement forward may be implicit yet timelessness is not violated.” His reading of “Gnossienne No.1” strikes an interesting balance: on the one hand, the tempo slows to such a crawl that the melodic line, stretched thin, feels close to withering away; yet on the other, the notes aren't so separated from one another that the melodic thread is lost. The piece plays as if Corner's performing an autopsy, with every small part dissected and held up for inspection.

Recorded in Brooklyn in November 2013, the 108-minute recording, which focuses on piano pieces from Satie's early period, is accompanied by a forty-four-page booklet featuring Corner's musicological commentaries on the seventeen selections as well as an additional sixteen-page booklet of graphic analyses. Among the works included are the four-part “Ogive,” “The Feast Given By the Norman Knights to Honour a Young Girl,” three “Gymnopédie” pieces, “Empire's Diva,” and the thirteen-minute “The Gothic Dances.”

The opening setting “Ogive I” is representative of the album content in certain respects: there's an initial unadorned statement of the melody followed by a chordal treatment; pauses whose length are amplified through the use of the pedal; and occasional dramatic contrasts in volume and dynamics, with a given melody alternating between declamatory and delicate voicings. Embellishment is eschewed, which helps illuminate the organizational clarity of Satie's works and the degree to which they're marked by symmetry and balance. Such restraint also brings the stately character of Satie's music into sharper relief (heard especially during the oft-majestic, three-part “Fanfare of the Rose+Cross” series).

In contrast to the ultra-slow reading of “Gnossienne No.1,” “First Prelude of the Nazarene” unfolds smoothly, its natural tempo enhanced by graceful chant-like melodies and a reflective demeanour. If anything, the music's hymnal suggestiveness is even more strongly felt within “Second Prelude of the Nazarene” due to its soothing chordal makeup. And the three “Gymnopédie” pieces, whilst slower perhaps than other pianists' versions, aren't so much slower that one's attention is overly diverted to that detail. If anything, Corner's measured lilt allows the delicate grace of the pieces to assert itself more forcefully. Of course, there's no shortage of Satie piano recordings to choose from, but what argues in Corner's favour is less his general preference for slower readings than his choice of material. Pretty much every Satie release includes the “Gnossienne” and “Gymnopédie” works, but Corner augments those well-known pieces with ones that are comparatively more obscure and enhances the release's appeal in doing so.

October 2014