Piano Music, Vol. 3 – Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
BIS BIS-2325 80:32 mins
This is a disc for repeated listening, even if played only once. Satie’s Vexations, discovered after his death, consists of an enigmatic 18-note melody for which he provides two equally curious and unresolved harmonisations. An ambiguous note on the manuscript implies that the melody and harmonies should be performed 840 times, a process that can take a full day. From John Cage in 1949 onwards, Vexations has been a totem for experimentalists, receiving a surprising number of ‘complete’ performances, including a couple available as downloads. Since 840 may simply be a metaphor for ‘many’, and the wording on the score is not necessarily an instruction, performers take a wide variety of approaches, including a single play-through of the score.
Forming the third volume of her excellent survey of Satie’s music on an 1890 Erard grand piano, Noriko Ogawa’s performance is thoughtfully provocative. She gives as many repetitions as can be squeezed onto the CD layer of this hybrid SACD, resulting in (a mere) 142 times through the score. Not without justification, Ogawa’s basic tempo is brisker than many. Starting in disconcertingly forthright manner, it soon becomes clear that these are not to be the unchanging Zen-like repetitions common in other performances. Rather, Ogawa delights in exploring the ambiguity of this score devoid of dynamic and articulation markings, varying touch and mood, from smoothly reflective to spiky or rambunctious. This is an absorbing and rewarding account, with some delightful surprises for those who persist.