unsent love letters: meditations on Erik Satie


Artist/s: Elena Kats-Chernin (composer), Tamara-Anna Cislowska (piano)
Category: Classical, New Music
Label: ABC Classics 481 4967 (2017)
Reviewed by

“These 26 enchanting impressionistic musings on aspects of Erik Satie’s life and music are skilfully composed and expertly performed and produced.”

Each piece is based on an incident or an object from Satie’s biography or alternatively on an idea from his music or writings.  In the booklet Kats-Chernin writes a paragraph or two to describe the particular inspiration for each piece. It is clear that both performer and composer have formed a deep appreciation for the strange personality and quirky music of Satie. Furthermore the project comes across as a deep creative collaboration between the two of them.

Composer Elena Kats-Chernin

From the outset of the recording, which is ostensibly comprised of solo piano pieces, we become aware that there are elements additional to solo piano. The first track, love token, involves piano overdubs (perhaps duetting) and something that sounds like a plucked double bass line.  I like to think this sound was produced on the piano, and if it were so, I’m impressed. Track 3, behind your pearls, (a reference to Satie’s only known lover, Suzanne Valadon) incorporates piano interior plucked glissandi and other techniques in addition to sounds produced via the keyboard. Many other tracks contain additional keyboard or extended techniques. I was curious about this since the CD booklet contains an advertisement for the “the piano book” of unsent love letters, a sheet music volume soon to be published by Boosey & Hawkes. I wondered if these elements additional to solo piano performance would be included in this publication?

Part of my interest in undertaking this review was that I myself have composed piano music inspired by Satie. It is hard not to be intrigued by his unconventional ideas, musical or otherwise. I’ve even made a pilgrimage to the impressive museum, Les Maisons Satie, in Honfleur, Normandy, which houses many of Satie’s bizarre sculptural creations.

Thus I was keen to see what Kats-Chernin’s approach might be. The album is roughly divided between pieces that have a tangible connection to Satie’s music and pieces that are more abstractly conceived. Many of the items (for example sarabande, very shiny, absynthe cocktail, one table one chair, and imaginary building), use Satie’s Gymnopédies accompaniment triple-time “oom-pah” idea of a low bass note and a mid-range voiced chord on the second beat. Kats-Chernin also uses a duple-time version of this in le chat noir and maple in the evening In these pieces, she is clearly influenced by Satie’s famous Gymnopédies and Gnossienne piano works. In many instances she manages to capture the typical asymmetry of Satie’s melodic designs over these banal left-hand patterns.

Erik Satie by Man Ray

On the other hand, there are pieces that explore flowing piano accompaniment textures, some with sparse interpolated melodic elements and others that sound like accompaniments in search of a melodic line. The title track (unsent love letters) is a good example of this compositional strategy. I found myself improvising vocal melodies over this piece, wanting there to be more of a tune.

A few pieces stood out for me. At over seven minutes duration, eggshell (a reference to Satie’s broken heart after being dumped by Suzanne) is by far the longest piece of the collection, and probably the slowest. None the less its simple melodic design and ponderous bass-heavy chords makes it one of the most atmospheric tracks of the CD.

Suzanne Valadon, by Renoir, 1885

Although clearly a Gymnopédies-influenced piece, imaginary building (a reference to Satie’s penchant for drawing architectural designs) demonstrates a delightful jazzy style. It is as if Satie had lived a few decades longer than he did.

modern romantic (which according to the composer is a term invented by Satie to indicate lyrical music with no development) begins with a repeated triad accompanying a melody based on different permutations of a limited set of diatonic tones. A third of the way through, however, the triad is replaced by a chordal figuration reminiscent of Peter Sculthorpe’s Stars for piano (1971). A delicious clash of diatonism and mild dissonance ensues.

Despite my track preferences, it is fair to say that virtually every one of the twenty six pieces has some curious element that fits nicely with the Satie aesthetic.


Tamara-Anna Cislowska performs unsent love letters


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