Raise your bowler hat. If you are to buy just one Satie disc in this year celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth, this should be it. Eschewing the temptation to throw in a few popular favourites, such as Je te veux or La diva de l’Empire, soprano Barbara Hannigan and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw have created a recital that goes much deeper into the refined essence of the composer.
The focus is Satie’s often overlooked masterpiece, the cantata Socrate. Started in 1916, but not heard until 1919, it sets portions of Plato’s dialogues in a manner that Satie himself described as lucid, transparent, even fragile. In order to be in an appropriate frame of mind during its composition, the composer even restricted himself to eating only white food. The result is a hypnotic work that gives every impression of having neither beginning nor end and is vital to understanding key works by Les Six or Stravinsky in the 1920s, not least the latter’s ballet Apollo. Drawing on a long association with Satie’s music, Hannigan and De Leeuw perfectly capture the elusive, emotionally detached nature of the work in a manner that paradoxically makes it more affecting. Alcibiades’s declaration in the first part that ‘I speak not in jest; nothing could be more serious’ may or may not be pointing to Dadaist irony, but their poker-faced performance of Socrate ensures that it is quixotically charming and demands rapt attention.
It is prefaced by two much earlier sets of mélodies and the meditative Hymne; helpfully, all the lyrics are available in French, English and German on the Winter & Winter website. The Hymne was written in 1891 for Sar Peladan’s Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique du Temple et du Graal, of which Satie was official composer and chapel-master. The Trois mélodies are earlier works, from 1886; their first words, ‘dressed in white’ could not be more apposite for this disc. They may be youthful love songs, yet the essence of Satie’s character is already apparent in the Spartan accompaniments and deceptively undemonstrative vocal lines. De Leeuw’s placing of the simple, though far from simplistic, sequences of piano chords is perfectly judged, while Hannigan somehow manages to convey vulnerability within the exceptional control required for the sustained restraint of Satie’s vocal lines.
The most energetic the music gets in this recital is the relaxed stroll of the Trois autres mélodies of 1886-1906, but the repertoire feels neither constricted nor dull. Hannigan and De Leeuw are mesmerising, casting a spell from the very first notes of the opening ‘Les Anges’ that remains unbroken until the characteristically unexpected end of Socrate. It feels all- too-brief, yet would seem the same if it were two or three times as long, for this is a timeless recital. (Christopher Dingle / BBC Music)