Although, as composer, Erik Satie gets the headline billing on Socrate, it would be unjust not to give a prominent mention to soprano Olalla Alemán and pianist Guy Vandromme for the quality of their performance, and also to Wannes Gonnissen for recording, editing and mastering such a crystal-clear rendition of it. It is a measure of Wandelweiser's adventurous spirit that, for the label's first recording of music by Satie, it did not go for any of his well-loved piano favourites such as Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes or even Vexations; instead, it opted for the more obscure "symphonic drama" Socrate, based on the life and death of the Greek philosopher Socrates, which was commissioned in October 1916.
The piece consists of three parts, "Portrait of Socrates", "Banks of the Ilissus" [the Ilissus was a stream that flowed through Athens] and "Death of Socrates", which use text mentioning Socrates drawn, respectively, from "Symposium", "Phaedrus" and "Phaedo", all written by Socrates' best-known student, Plato. Socrate was first performed in April 1918, with Satie himself at the piano and the soprano Jane Bathori singing all four roles, male and female. Satie later prepared a version for voice and small orchestra, but the version here, with just Alemán and Vandromme, is true to that original voice and piano duo.
As with many a duo, the format allows both performers to be heard clearly. Alemán's voice is perfectly suited to the subject matter; even when the literal content of what she is singing is unclear, the raw emotion and pain in her voice speak volumes. Vandromme's piano effectively frames that voice, being faithful to Satie's spare, uncluttered score which makes an ideal accompaniment, and his dramatic flourishes at moments of high drama, particularly during "Death of Socrates", unsurprisingly. Those coming to this piece hoping to be educated about Socrates and his life would probably learn more by spending an hour online or at their local library. Newcomers to Satie are probably best advised to begin with his piano music, mentioned above, before moving on to Socrate. With those two provisos in mind, this recording can be unreservedly recommended.
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