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Noriko Ogawa has fallen for the distinctly French charms of Erik Satie, undertaking recordings of all his piano music for the 150th anniversary of his birth. She talks to Jessica Duchen about the quirks and challenges of this unique composer

Recording the complete piano works of Erik Satie is no small challenge at the best of times. The 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth falls this year, so he is much under the spotlight; yet his unique approach – eccentric, surreal, absurd, inspired – can still make his music awkward to approach for some listeners. His numerous compositions for piano run to as many as five CDs; but this depends on what is done with Vexations, a short piece that Satie specifies should be repeated 840 times.

Take all this, then imagine carrying out the task on an 1890 Erard piano, having never played one before. That is what Noriko Ogawa has decided upon as her next undertaking. When the London-based Japanese pianist was in Tokyo several years ago to give a Debussy recital, she agreed to try out an Erard owned by her piano technician, an instrument that happens to be contemporaneous with some of Satie’s piano works. ‘After five minutes of playing, I just fell in love with it,’ she enthuses. ‘It’s so beautiful! All the strings are strung straight, which makes the bass resonate in a different way. The keyboard seems softer, more cushioned, the response is very fast and the sound is slightly nasal, in a way that to my ear sounds almost like the French language. It really took me into the world of Satie and during the recording sessions I started to hear Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Poulenc and Messiaen in a new light. Now I can’t imagine the city of Paris without Satie’s music.’

The first disc in her complete Satie series contains most of his best-known works, including the Gymnopédies and the Gnossiennes. Mixing the different spheres of his works together to make varied and interesting programmes is not inappropriate, she suggests; in her view a chronological approach is not necessary, since Satie’s style did not develop in a linear way: ‘I wouldn’t really call it development,’ she says. ‘Instead, he has different phases: he looks in one direction and focuses on one style, then moves on to another one – religious pieces or something more political, or sarcastic, or “furniture music” – these completely new ideas. I feel he had many pockets and would bury himself in one pocket at a time.’

Many of the short pieces involve not only notes but also images and texts: ‘That really attracts me,’ says Ogawa. ‘Some are almost too short to understand musically, but when you see them with the texts and the illustrations, you can appreciate his music as a package.’ Certain of the pieces are complicated by the fact that Satie asks the pianist not to read the text while playing the music. Elsewhere it’s clear that he was ahead of his time, inventing effectively the first piece of minimalism in Vexations: ‘I’m thinking of recording that not necessarily in 840 repetitions, but as a CD of 84 minutes,’ she laughs. ‘And he also invented the idea of background music: in his pieces of “furniture music” he is asking people to carry on walking, talking and looking around while the music is played.”

Another challenge for Ogawa has involved coming to terms technically with Satie’s strangest episodes of harmonic language. ‘Some of the religious pieces, which I really love, are very difficult for my hands because they’re full of lovely chords, one after the other, not necessarily related to one another. The harmonic progression is not conventional, which makes it technically a bit difficult.’ She names the Sonatine Bureaucratique, a satire based on Clementi’s Sonatina Op 36 No 1, as a special favourite: ‘It’s complete parody, but if you read the text it’s very philosophical. It starts comically, then various disasters fly out to the world to be free… It shows fantastic imagination, and there’s a lot to learn.

‘I can’t look at Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Poulenc and Messiaen’s music in the same way any more,’ she adds. ‘Debussy is almost the elite version of Satie; they were two contrasting characters, but the great Mr Debussy was quietly and secretly taking ideas from the very poor Satie. My perspective on French music of that time has changed, as has my impression of the dynamics, the power struggles between these composers. I only wish Satie could know that today his music is being played and that more and more people are discovering what he actually invented.’

JESSICA DUCHEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing