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Erik Satie, "42 Vexations (1893)"

cover imageWithout doubt, this is the best rendition of Erik Satie’s marathon piano piece to surface. Performed last year in Brussels by Stephane Ginsburgh on Satie’s own piano, this is beautifully recorded extract from the mammoth work is breathtaking. Listening to this in the still of the night is anything but vexating. The calm, contemplative music brings about feelings of bliss and by the end of the recording it is difficult to be annoyed about anything.


Sub Rosa

Satie’s Vexations was overlooked for many years as a joke; one musical motif played 840 times with no variation. It was only in 1963, 70 years after it was written, that John Cage organised an 18 hour 40 minute rendition of the piece. The seeming impossibility of any one man performing the whole piece was solved by having 11 pianists take it in turns to play a number of repetitions each. This recording of Vexations, as the title suggests, sees Ginsburgh perform 42 variations of the piece. His performance is clear and deliberate, obviously taking into account Satie’s sole direction as to how to play the piece: “In order to play this motif 840 times consecutively to oneself, it will be useful to prepare oneself beforehand, and in utter silence, by grave immobilities.” This could be directed at the listener too; in order to hear the piece as intended, the CD needs to be repeated 20 times (not 12 as indicated in the sleeve notes) which is over 23 hours of intense repetition (I have not tried this yet...).

Compared to Alan Marks’ recording of Vexations, this recording is superior in terms of sound quality and in performance. Ginsburgh seems less hurried and lets each note sing out with all its splendour. As I stated in my review of Marks’ performance, it is difficult to expect what will come next within each repetition of the motif as Satie made Vexations into quite a complex and unpredictable piece of music, an amazing feat considering the huge amounts of repetition required.

Also included with the CD is a comprehensive essay by Matthew Shlomowitz on the relationship between the works of Satie and those of Cage, detailing how without Cage’s interest in the piece it would have remained unknown and unappreciated. As it is an extract from a larger thesis, it is quite academic in tone but it is still a fascinating read to the layman. Overall, this is the definitive production of Satie’s Vexations until someone actually puts out the whole thing in one recording.



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