Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works

An arresting opening — which I initially feared would irritate, but
which actually worked very well — was provided by Harriet Walter’s
narration, replete with East Coast accent, presenting a first-person sketch,
written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, of the life of Winnaretta Singer. Daughter
of the inventor of the sewing machine, Isaac Singer, Winnaretta went on to
become the celebrated musical patroness, Princess Edmund de Polignac,
commissioning both Socrate and Renard, though Diaghilev’s
machinations and Stravinsky’s duplicity — at least according to this
account — meant that her salon would not host the latter work’s premiere.
Walter’s delivery of the script was just as excellent as one would expect
from this fine actress: never overdone, effortlessly convincing. I wondered a
little about the Princess’s, or rather Wertenbaker’s, claim that patrons go
unsung. Not in my lectures they do not; indeed, I sometimes wonder whether I
over-emphasise their role. I also wondered whether a male patron would have
received quite so sympathetic a treatment: might we not at least have been led
to think, ‘why should someone inherit all that money in the first place?’
But those are quibbles, and the narration, heard before Socrate and
before Renard seemed to go down well with the audience.

Satie’s Socrate: oh dear. I tried; I really did. Doubtless some
will say that was the problem. But for me, its sole redeeming feature was the
excellence of the performances from Barbara Hannigan and Reinbert de Leeuw.
Cool, white, monotonous, with the occasional subtle colouring of the vocal
line: soprano and pianist were really beyond reproach. However, a work, like so
much of Satie, which seems set up to forestall criticism — whatever you say
against it, someone will respone, ‘well that is the point’ — had better
be of Stravinskian quality if, as, for instance The Rake’s Progress
does, it attempts that disabling tactic. Frankly, it makes one long even for
the dullest of Stravinsky: Apollo, or Orpheus, say. Its
lengthy ‘setting’ of Plato — is it really a ‘setting’ at
all, when it seems to respond no more to the text than Rossini does in much of
his Stabat Mater? — droans on and on, until, by the time the third
part, ‘La Mort de Socrate’ opens, one feels as if one has been suffering
the same composer’s Vexations. What a strange conception of ancient
Greece this is; it almost makes one sympathise with Nietzsche’s venom against
Socrates. The artists, admirably controlled throughout, made the most of the
slight suggestion of drama as we heard of the poison’s arrival, but if the
best one can say about something is that it is somewhat less tedious than the
music of Philip Glass, perhaps it is time to wonder whether Satie has an
Emperor, let alone clothes.

Stravinsky’s invention thus struck the hall like a thunderbolt. It always
does, at least in good performances, and these performances were certainly
that. A string quartet (Jonathan Morton, Joan Atherton, Paul Silverthorne, Tim
Gill, all standing save for the cellist) drawn from the London Sinfonietta
brought us the composer’s astonishing Three Pieces. The work’s
strangeness, its utter dissociation from anything one might consider to
constitute a string quartet repertoire and tradition still shocks — and
certainly did so here. Defiantly post-Rite of Spring, this is in many
senses a far more radical break with ‘tradition’, as unique as Le Roi
des Ètoiles
. Tightly focused rhythms and — as soon as one bothered to
listen — a profusion of melody were hallmarks of this account. The final
piece brought a sense of the hieratic, but what a contrast it made with the
mere tedium of Satie. Here was music. Timothy Lines offered strong performances
of the Three Pieces for clarinet, written five years later in 1919. If
the first offered a gentler, one is almost tempted to say pastoral,
sound-world, it remained utterly Stravinskian in its evident
‘construction’. And in any case, there was nothing remotely gentle about
its joyous successor, nor to the third, which seemed to anticipate the world of
Renard. The performance was rich in tonal and dynamic differentiation,
rhythm propelling the notes and their ‘meaning’. The 1920
Concertino for string quartet followed, though oddly the programme had
no notes on it. Again, the utterly individual approach of the composer not only
to the medium of the string quartet but to stringed instruments themselves was
immediately announced. A kaleidoscope of what Stravinsky would have hated one
to call ‘moods’ — unless, of course, he arbitrarily decided to use the
word, as in his Norwegian Moods — revealed itself during the
work’s brief span. Here was concision to rival Webern, yet long before
Stravinsky’s serialist turn. It sounded almost akin to a mechanised Beethoven

Hannigan turned director for the wonderful burlesque, Renard, given in
concert performance, Colour and rhythm were very much to the fore in a
performance for which she seemed to act more as enabler than dictator. Old
Stravinsky hands that the London Sinfonietta are, that is doubtless the right
way around. Thematic consistency during and after the opening March was
especially noteworthy; this was no mere collection of episodes. Even when the
Cock turned languid, ‘Sizhu na dubu…’ (‘I’m on my perch…’),
rhythmic underpinning remained tight. There was room for seduction too, from
the Fox with his cake. But above all what struck was the visceral nature of
Stravinsky’s score, so truthful a representation of the or at least a
childhood imagination. The London Sinfonietta’s performance could not be
faulted; the four vocal soloists proved fine advocates too. If the tenors
perhaps captured greater attention, that is probably more a reflection of score
than performance. Why do we not hear this work more often?

Mark Berry

Satie: Socrate; Stravinsky: Three Pieces for string quartet, Three
Pieces for clarinet, Concertino, Renard.

Barbara Hannigan (soprano/director), Daniel Norman (tenor); Edgaras
Montvidas (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass); John Molloy (bass); Reinbert de
Leeuw (piano); Timothy Lines (clarinet); Harriet Walter (narrator);Timberlake
Wertenbaker (script writer); London Sinfonietta. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London,
Sunday 10 February 2013.

image_description=The Southbank Centre
product_title=Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: The Southbank Centre