United Kingdom Satie, Debussy, Ravel. Milhaud, Tailleferre, Durey, Auric, Honegger, Poulenc: Pascal and Ami Rogé (piano), Cheltenham Music Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 6.7.2016. (RJ)
Satie: Parade (1917); Trois morceaux en forme de poire; Gnossienne No 2; Gymnopédie No 1; Je te veux
Debussy: Petite Suite
Ravel: Ma mère l’Oye
Miljhaud: Enfantines; Suite après trois poèmes de Jean Cocteau
Tailleferre: Image (1918)
Durey: Carillons, Op 7 No 1
Auric: Adieu New York
Honegger: Pastorale d’été, H31
Poulenc: Sonata for Piano Four Hands (1918)
Debussy dubbed Erik Satie (1866-1925) “the Precursor”, and this programme of piano duets, entitled Satie and Friends went a long way to demonstrate the influence of this idiosyncratic composer on the generation of French composers who followed him, notably Ravel and Les Six. His Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes date from the closing years of the 19th century, yet he remained active all his life composing Parade, which opened the recital, in 1917 when members of Les Six were coming to prominence.
Parade, commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes is a fast moving explosion of melodies ranging from the music of the circus and cabaret to the music hall with frequent changes of direction and rhythm. It was played with supreme co-ordination by the husband and wife team of Pascal and Ami Rogé who were clearly enjoying themselves despite the intricacies and eccentricities of the work. All that was missing was an ensemble of dancers dressed in cardboard Cubist costumes designed by Picasso. Alas we live in an age of austerity!
It was a good idea to juxtapose Parade with the Petite Suite by Satie’s contemporary Claude Debussy who in 1889 was pioneering his own revolution in music. The duo gave a wonderfully evocative performance of En bateau with its gentle rocking movement, followed by a grandiose procession, a sparkling menuetto and a particularly lively and joyous ballet. Maurice Ravel, Satie’s junior by nine years, also had a place in this recital with his Mother Goose Suite; Ravel regarded himself as a disciple of Satie, though the latter was not too keen on his music. The first half also featured Satie’s idiosyncratic Trois morceaux en forme de poire (Three pieces in the shape of a pear) – an idiosyncratic response to Debussy’s criticism that his work lacked form – but despite the sterling efforts of the Rogés I felt the music didn’t quite live up to its very original title.
Pascal Rogé took to the platform alone to play two solo pieces by Satie: he gave a gently persuasive performance of the first Gymnopédie followed by a crowd-pleasing rendition of Je te veux, the composer’s most popular song. Mme Rogé (who is Japanese by birth) rejoined him is for an uninterrupted medley of works by Les Six, swapping places at the piano with her husband between each one. This was a rare opportunity to hear pieces by Les Six played together, though I’m not sure I would wish to repeat the process. Only one of two of the works stood out, notably Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’été with its subtle changes of key, contrasting colours and sense of the sublime.
Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands seemed an odd choice with which to end the programme, for this is early (teenage) Poulenc before he developed the individual style for which he is renowned. It began with a restless Prelude which clearly owed its inspiration to Satie, was followed by a pleasant Rustique and ended with a pulsating Finale, which brought to mind the percussive style Stravinsky used in his ballet Petrushka, for example. In fact, a dose of Stravinsky’s music might have offered a stronger conclusion to a recital which had started off so stunningly with Parade.
But I’m not complaining. This morning provided an exhilarating start to Cheltenham’s 72nd Music Festival opening the audience’s eyes and ears to the works and influence of one of the great mavericks of the musical world. The Rogés were on sparkling form throughout and their enthusiasm for three decades of French music at the turn of the century was infectious. I note that they are off to perform in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Indonesia next; if this is the programme they are planning to give in these countries, it should go down a treat.
I rounded off the first day of the Festival with a visit to Evensong at Dean Close School Chapel to hear Tewkesbury Schola Cantorum perform British music under their conductor Simon Bell. A Latin Version of Psalm 150 set by Matthew Martin was a robust and joyous outpouring of sound, but pride of place must go to William Mathias whose challenging settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from the Jesus College Service were performed with precision and confidence by the choir, and whose virtuosic organ voluntary Jubilate played with such gusto by Carleton Etherington must have blown out any dust remaining in the organ pipes (to quote one member of the congregation)!