Proms Chamber Music 3: A Satie Cabaret with Alistair McGowan, Jean Delescluse & Alexandre Tharaud

“French pianist and Satie champion Alexandre Tharaud leads a cabaret of music and words celebrating one of the most curious and innovative composers of the 20th century. He is joined by actor and impressionist Alistair McGowan (author of both a radio play and a documentary inspired by the composer) for a lunchtime foray featuring extracts from Satie’s witty Memoirs of an Amnesiac. Along the way we discover more about the composer of the solo-piano Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies: a committed eccentric who embraced Surrealism, invented the term ‘furniture music’ (later to become ‘ambient music’), frequented Montmartre’s bohemian Le Chat Noir cabaret club, became seduced by an esoteric strain of mystical Catholicism and for a period ate only food that was white in colour.” [BBC Proms website]

Alistair McGowan (actor), Jean Delescluse (singer) & Alexandre Tharaud (piano)

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 1 August, 2016
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Actor Alistair McGowan performs in A Satie Cabaret at the Proms Chamber Music 3 at Cadogan Hall at the BBC Proms 2016Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouNearly thwarted by delays on the Underground (latecomers arrived throughout the first fifteen minutes) this well-attended Proms Chamber Music recital of miniatures celebrated the music of Erik Satie (he was initially Eric yet signed himself Erik) who would have celebrated his 150th-birthday this year had he not died in 1925.

Alistair McGowan, perhaps best-known as an impressionist, put his mimicry skills to good use as the bowler-hatted, pinstripe-suited, bearded composer portrayed as he was often seen in his latter days. It is no accident that McGowan plays the part of Satie. From first impressions (as it were) of the Gymnopédie No.1 when he was aged nine to a documentary (based upon Satie’s letters) and a drama (based upon Satie’s life), both for BBC Radio 4, McGowan has hero-worshipped Satie.

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud performs in A Satie Cabaret at the Proms Chamber Music 3 at Cadogan Hall at the BBC Proms 2016Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouMcGowan’s readings acted as glue, holding the short pieces together. Substantial readings from Satie’s Mémoires d’un amnésique (Memoirs of an Amnesiac) reminded that Satie was not only a musician (in fact he preferred the term “phonometrician” – someone that measures sound – but also an author of witty text and anecdote. So convincing was McGowan at delivering the comedy that he almost overplayed his hand, leaving Jean Delescluse and Alexandre Tharaud to resort to slapstick in order to compete.

Delescluse’s light tenor voice was well suited to the twists and turns of Satie’s verse. Singing throughout with spotless diction ensured that each morsel was a delight. ‘La diva de L’Empire’, one of Satie’s more-familiar vocal pieces, sung with a flash of a smile, would not have been out of place in the cafés of Monmartre and all awhile sympathetically accompanied by Tharaud.

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud and tenor Jean Delescluse perform in A Satie Cabaret at the Proms Chamber Music 3 at Cadogan Hall at the BBC Proms 2016Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouSome of the finest performances were left to the end as the supremely static minimalism of Gnossienne and Gymnopédie (both being the first of the respective sets) echoed about Cadogan Hall. It is hard to do anything new with these pieces that date from the start of Satie’s musical career, and Tharaud thankfully didn’t try. The long and captivating melodic lines sang effortlessly over the simplistic left-hand figuration. As the main theme of this Gymnopédie came around for the second time, McGowan and Delescluse gathered around the piano in contemplation as the lighting faded to nothing.

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