Impressionist and actor, Alistair McGowan has a radio drama, documentary and stage play about French composer Erik Satie already under his belt. Now he has brought ‘A Satie Cabaret’ to the Proms, together with pianist Alexandre Tharaud and tenor Jean Delescluse. Cabaret was the right title, as this hour long show mixed the humour and at times vaudevillian songs of Satie with his witty writings and sharp aphorisms, although the darker, more intimate side of Satie’s piano music was here too. Presenting for BBC Radio 3, Petroc Trelawny referred to the curtains being drawn at Cadogan Hall for this lunchtime concert, and this did surprisingly create a more intimate atmosphere for this slightly louche Prom.

Alistair McGowan © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alistair McGowan
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Humour and ‘classical’ music is a difficult trick to pull off. So many times it relies on in-jokes and cosy references, so that those in on the joke can chuckle and feel clever, and those unaware of the reference are left excluded. However, here the jokes by and large did not rely on musical knowledge, but came more from Satie’s wonderful sense of the absurd and surreal, brought to life in both his own writings, read by McGowan, and in his songs. One exception to this was the musical lampooning of Beethoven and Chopin in the set of three short piano pieces, Embryons desséchés (Desiccated embryos), which Tharaud played to the full, enlisting Delescluse for the slapstick ‘false’ Beethovenian ending. Otherwise, Satie’s humour was shown to be more subtle and sharp than traditional musical jokes.

McGowan gave a convincing performance as Satie, dressed in the requisite suit and bowler hat, with added beard and moustache. He delivered the various readings, mostly taken from Satie’s Mémoires d’un amnésique, with strong characterisation and excellent comic timing. His readings were occasionally peppered with musical excerpts from Tharaud on the piano, such as when Satie jokes about his daily diary and the moments of musical inspiration (“I am inspired from 10.23 to 11.47…”). Yet McGowan also managed to convey some unease behind the self-deprecating humour, hinting at possible truths behind the damage Satie joked that music had done to him.

Alexandre Tharaud and Jean Delescluse © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alexandre Tharaud and Jean Delescluse
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Satie introduced the idea of ‘Musique d’ameublement’ (‘furniture music’, or as it was translated here, ‘background music’)... music to be repeated but not necessarily listened to closely. His description of this, here interspersed with an increasingly insistent repetition from Tharaud on the piano, of background music “wherever you go” in place of “real art”, was surprisingly prophetic, and McGowan once again delivered the punch line with great timing.

Delescluse’s renditions of Satie’s songs were great fun and full of high camp, with faultless diction and quickfire delivery. He delivered the punch line of Le veuf with a twinkle in his eye, and La diva de l’Empire had a swish in the hip, giving a suggestive drag twist to the queen of the dandies in Piccadilly. He also had great fun with Allons-y Chochotte, with its tongue-twisting repetitions at the end of each verse, once again razor-sharp. This was real cabaret entertainment, with only the costumes missing. Yet there was also subtlety and even a sense of wonder in the nursery style nonsense poems of Trois mélodies, although there was a hint of strain at the top here.

Tharaud played with great sensitivity and stillness of tone in the more contemplative of Satie’s piano pieces, particularly evident in the sombre Air du grand prieur from Trois sonneries de la Rose + Croix which opened the concert. Slapstick and parody aside, there was also great playful delicacy in his playing in the strangely titled Embryons desséchés. He also provided rousing accompaniment to Delescluse in the songs. Tharaud and Delescluse have performed together frequently, specialising in French songs by Satie and Poulenc, amongst others, and their close affinity was evident. But after all the humour, proceedings were drawn to a close with a sadder, more intimate focus. Tharaud gave a hypnotic performance of the Gnossienne no. 1, playing quieter and quieter with each repetition of the haunting theme. Then after a brief statement from ‘Satie’ on his purpose being ultimately producing ‘snatches of music’, he and Delescluse approached the piano for the final intimate and highly touching performance of perhaps the most famous Satie piece, the Gymnopédie no. 1. The sadness exuded from Tharaud’s sensitive touch, and from ‘Satie’, now leaning on the piano, as the lights dimmed around them.

In a cleverly thought-out programme, led by a strong central performance by McGowan, succeeded in combining the humour, intimacy, pathos and occasional surprising profundity of this enigmatic composer, born 150 years ago.

****1