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Erik Satie

Old Sequins and Ancient Breastplates: Historical Recordings and Rarities 1926-1961

Él Records (4-CD Set)

Of all the artists truly demanding a full, career-spanning box set of their works, Erik Satie surely lurks close to the top. Between the late 1880s and the mid-1920s (he died age 59 in 1925), Satie’s terse piano compositions were a signal influence on the minimalist school of the 20th century. Yet beyond “Trois Gymnopédies,” which he completed in 1888, it is safe to say he is scarcely known to the public at large. Which is astonishing, because that one piece is probably recognizable to everyone.

This slim, budget-priced four CD package should go some way to rectifying that. As its subtitle suggests, it effectively compiles the best of the various Satie collections released across the 35 years following his death, many of them hitherto available only on French import vinyl.

These include Francis Poulenc’s stark 1955 release Pieces for Piano, William Masselos’s Piano Music Of…, the French National Radio Orchestra’s Orchestral Music of…, the ballet suite Parade, under the baton of Igor Markevitch, a spectacular “Mass for the Poor” featuring organist Marilyn Mason, from 1951, Anne Laloé’ breathtaking “Socrate” (1961), and another Pulenc offering, Pièces pour Piano a Quatre Mains, performed alongside Jacques Février in 1961.

To this redoubtable assemblage can be added individual recordings dating back to Pierre Chagnon’s 1926 vision of “Trois Petites Pièces Montées,” the Boston Symphony’s 1930 “Gymnopedie #1,” and, from two decades on, an absolutely stunning “#2,” both under the eye of Serge Koussevitzky. We hear John Cage and Morton Feldman discussing Satie, and even a couple of pieces that were dedicated to him, by Stravinsky and Ravel.

The sound quality is not always perfect - the Chagnon piece was clearly taken from a 78 source; the earliest Boston Symphony suffers from some hiss and distortion. In general, however, there is little here to send one’s ears running for the hills, while the sheer historic heft of the performances included should blind even the most audiophiliac listener to the occasional imperfection. The accompanying booklet, too, is a glorious scrapbook of record jackets, photos and detail.