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Issue 39:2 (November/December 2015)

Kaikosru Shapurji Sorabji: Piano Music
Michael Habermann - NAXOS 8.571363–65 (3 CDs: 197:54)

SORABJI 2 Piano Pieces. Fantasie Espagnole. Hommage à Johann Strauss. Pastiche: Hindu Merchant Song from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. Pastiche: Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen. Pastiche: Chopin’s Valse, op. 64/1. Le jardin parfumé. Djâmî. Gulistan. Opus Clavicembalisticum: Introito and Preludio-Corale. Prelude, Interlude and Fugue. Fragment for Harold Rutland. Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell’egregio poeta Christopher Grieve. Quære reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora. St. Bernard de Comminges: “He was laughing in the tower.” HABERMANN A la manière de Sorabji: Au clair de la lune • Michael Habermann (pn) • NAXOS 8.571363–65 (3 CDs: 197:54)

By Lynn René Bayley

French-born pianist Habermann, who now resides in the U.S., is multi-lingual as well as musically multi-cultural. He is described in the liner notes to this three-CD set by the late Donald Garvelmann (who died in 2001) as Sorabji’s “ideal interpreter … Habermann faithfully honors details of Sorabji’s scores to a ‘T,’ doesn’t simplify any passages for digital convenience and amazes by always performing entirely from memory….he once practiced a single measure of one of the pieces for a solid week until all the elements of that measure were perfectly in place.”

Thus, after having listened to and enjoyed Fredrik Ullén’s playing of the Transcendental Studies (see my review elsewhere in this issue), I was curious to hear this paragon of Sorabji interpreters. It should be noted that all the pieces on this set are reissues of recordings made between 1979 and 1994, most of them while the composer was still alive, and originally issued by MusicMasters and Élan. It took be some digging online, however, to discover that this is a duplication of the three-CD set Sorabji: Legendary Works for Piano issued in 2003 on British Music Society BMS427-429CD. A few of them are live performances; such as the Valse Fantaisie from November 19, 1984, despite the fact that the booklet does not specifically say so.

Typically of French-trained pianists, Habermann has a warm, almost relaxed approach to pianism, full of colors and shades, an aesthetic focused on details of sound. Thus one is perhaps not as aware of the extraordinarily difficulty of Sorabji’s music when listening to Habermann as one is, for instance, when listening to John Ogdon’s recording of Opus Clavicembalisticum, as he tends to make those busy passages sound like water splashing off to the side of a massive waterfall. Everything flows and falls into place with astonishing ease. One might question whether or not Sorabji’s music is meant to be heard “with astonishing ease,” but apparently Garvelmann introduced the pianist to the composer, who heard him play, and thus gave permission (not easily granted) for him to perform and record his works. And certainly, in a piece such as the Toccata from the early Two Piano Pieces, Habermann digs into the rhythms in such a manner as to bring the music to vivid life. He also does a beautiful job on the 1919 Fantaisie Espagnole, a work clearly based on the music of Albéniz.

The Valse Fantaisie: Hommage à Johann Strauss (1925) sounds about as much like Johann Strauss as Le sacre du printemps sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov. Only the use of triple meter makes you conscious that you are hearing a waltz at all; otherwise, the ear hears the music as if it were broken up into shards and tossed helter-skelter into the air, hoping that the mind of some listeners will be able to coalesce it into a recognizable waltz form. Around the seven-minute mark, one hears a snippet or two that resembles On the Beautiful Blue Danube, and there are equally brief or briefer snippets of Strauss elsewhere, but by and large this is musical deconstruction on a large scale, something like Ravel’s La valse on acid. And speaking of Rimsky-Korsakov, Sorabji rewrites his famous “Song of India” (technically, the “Song of the Indian Guest”) from Sadko with extraordinary reharmonization and revoicing in such a way that it sounds as if a three-handed pianist were performing it: one two-handed pianist to play the melody and the accompanying chords, and a third hand playing an entirely different melody slightly out of rhythmic and tonal kilter to the original. Ironically, for a pianist who clearly expressed his disapproval of jazz (which he called something like “music for the besotment of the masses”), his reworking of the Carmen “Habanera” bears a close resemblance to the kind of work Martial Solal, Clare Fischer, or Bill Evans would have done with it. (Considering the fearsome digital complexity of Sorabji’s score, one could more easily imagine this showing up on one of Evans’s Conversations With Myself albums.) The Sorabji-Chopin “Minute” Waltz takes more than four minutes but also pushes Chopin “out on a limb” into the kind of explorative territory that Lennie Tristano delighted in. This is great stuff! The first CD ends with the one and only composition by Habermann himself on this album, À la maniere de Sorabji, “Au clair de la lune.” It’s certainly like Sorabji, as the music bears even less of a resemblance to the tune of that name than Sorabji’s pastiches do to those other tunes. This, too, ends with applause, and thus is a live performance.

Le jardin parfume is Sorabji’s take on the exotica of his time. It has a certain Eastern scent to it, all right, but is busier technically than most music of this type. In the liner notes, Habermann makes it clear that although the technical challenges of Sorabji’s music are fascinating, he would not have wasted five minutes on it if the music were not also interesting and communicative. This is a perfect example. Djâmî, his 1928 “nocturne for piano,” is a very heady piece, paying homage to Persian poet Nuru’d-Din Abdu’r-Raman Jami and described by Robert J. Gula as eclipsing even the Opus Clavicembalisticum: “Djâmî moves my soul as few other works for piano ever have.” It is at once evocative of the East and rigorously logical in construction and development. To a certain degree, it may have been his farewell to such musical expressions for the time being, as his next great work was the Opus Clavicembalisticum, which focuses more on rigorous construction and less on evocative moods. Habermann plays Djâmî here with a bit of both moods, which suits it extremely well. Although Habermann refers occasionally to Sorabji’s enthusiastic responses to his performances of his works, he doesn’t say whether or not the composer heard the actual studio recordings or just live performances that Habermann sent him on tape. Either way, however, it is clear that Sorabji enjoyed his playing.

The nearly 30-minute Gulistan, a nocturne for piano, is based on The Rose Garden by the Sufi poet Sa’di. Habermann describes it as “one of the most sumptuous and imposing of the nocturnes … [creating] a magical world hitherto unexplored by any of his predecessors,” a “unique masterwork, even to this day.” It also attracts attention as one of the very few of his works that we have Sorabji himself playing, privately recorded at his home in 1965. Habermann, hearing it, was startled by his “enormous deviations from the score in every respect (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation)” while still admiring its “remarkable tonal beauty.” When he wrote to Sorabji questioning this, the composer wrote back, “I don’t doubt it for ONE MOMENT! I am not … repeat NOT a pianist and make no pretensions to being one….Such liberties as I take … are dictated by the condition of my fingers at any particular time when I was recording; then I modify it AS SUITS ME. That’s all there is to it. The music as printed embodies my INTENTIONS.”

This is a very important letter and explains why no modern performer should seek to perform any music, regardless of era or style, in a manner that recreates the conditions of the initial performance or, for that matter, any particular performance given by the composer. Should you need further proof of this statement, just read some of Mozart’s letters to his father (or some of Beethoven’s letters) about the abysmal orchestras (such as they were … most times he complained about their undernourished size and inability to play what he had written) he was stuck with when playing his piano concertos in public. Composers do not always have the technical skills to reproduce what they write; or the instruments are defective, forcing them to work around their own music; or the accompanying forces are too small, or technically insecure, or unable to play the composer’s style. Yet we keep forcing people to listen to solo instruments so underpowered and unable to express what is on the page that we are baffled by them, whiny, “white”-sounding, uninflected string and wind playing, equally whiny, “white”-sounding and uninflected choral and solo singing, including the use of countertenors where none were ever intended, as a means of grossly distorting the music, which as written embodies the composer’s intentions, in the name of some bizarre cult.

As for the music of Gulistan, I felt it was too busy for its stated intention. One does not feel as if one is in a rose garden while hearing it, but rather in a rainstorm that never stops. The constant motion, shower of notes, and largely mezzo-forte and forte dynamics run counter to Sorabji’s stated mood. Only between the 22- and 25-minute mark does one get the feeling of being in a rose garden. Moreover, I didn’t find the music is very well developed; on the contrary, it just keeps “running off at the mouth,” so to speak, whereas in the same vein Djâmî succeeds beautifully. It is simply a matter of degree and compositional execution. My impression is that Gulistan is the closest thing Sorabji wrote to musical wallpaper. This, too, is a live performance.

Habermann plays the “Introito”and “Preludio-Corale” to Opus Clavicembalisticum as well as I’ve ever heard it done, but then again, I only have two recordings to go by, the Ogdon and Geoffrey Douglas Madge. I wonder if he ever recorded this massive work complete or, if not, why not? We could certainly use his recording as a reference. The Prelude, Interlude and Fugue, a relatively early work from 1920–22, is a wonderful piece: busy, but busy in such a way that the opening Prelude creates a sort of perpetuum mobile of whirling sounds that coalesce into a stunning whole, while the Interlude provides a calm center that nonetheless attracts little swarms of notes that sound like fireflies in the night. The concluding Fugue has a feeling not unlike some of the composer’s Transcendental Studies of the 1940s, a quirkiness that almost makes you feel that the music is running backwards (this is another live recording). The two brief pieces Fragment for Harold Rutland and Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell’egregio poeta Christopher Grieve (a title that is almost longer than the piece itself) are still rather dense in texture and ideas. I was particularly taken by the latter, set to a quirky, galumphing beat at once elusive and attractive, which quickly becomes broken up as the music suddenly grows denser and thicker.

This Sorabji collection ends with two long pieces, the first of which, Quære reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora (Seek the rest of this matter among the things that are more secret) is one of Sorabji’s most fascinating structures, unusually (for him) comprised of terse, almost objective-sounding blocks of sound; jagged, Stravinsky-ish rhythms; and at certain moments an ominous, almost stomping beat in the left hand. It is almost a cry of anguish. On the other hand, St. Bertrand de Comminges: He was laughing in the tower is “a musical depiction of M. R. James’ ghost story, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book.” For further description, I refer you to the liner notes. Such a piece is always open to question since it is allied to a specific literary work and the story it tells, just as politically motivated murals are tied to the promotion of an ideal. The message thus loses its universality; I, for one, have never read any of James’s ghost stories nor intend to do so. Taken on its own merits and divorced from the imagery it seeks to establish, the score is very interesting, unusually (for Sorabji) episodic in mood, almost like a one-movement suite (at about the 10-minute mark we hear a hymn-like modal episode that, despite its quietude, amplifies the feeling of unease). Habermann’s performance is wonderfully detailed and animated. This, too, is a live performance.

This set is enthusiastically recommended. As a footnote, I’d also like to enthusiastically encourage you to explore Marc-André Roberge’s long-awaited biography of the composer, Opus Sorabjianum: The Life and Works of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. It is available online for completely free downloading so that you can read it, print it out, or do whatever you wish with it. Lynn René Bayley

Copyright ©2015 by Lynn René Bayley, all rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission