Back to Recordings Reviews
Table of Contents

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 Colin Clarke

I have come across this three-disc set before, in its earlier 2003 incarnation on the British Music Society label (BMS427-429CD). The recordings predate that, even: Naxos cites MusicMasters and Elan as the original issuers. The set’s special qualities, in terms of repertoire, performance and documentation (in the latter case, Naxos reprints the original) remain unchanged. But, how wonderful it is to have an excuse to experience this magnificent, heady music again.

In fact, even prior to the BMS issue, Habermann’s Sorabji had been familiar to me, thanks to a recording on BIS of transcriptions (BIS 1306), where Sorabji out-Ravels Ravel in his 1945 transcription of the Rapsodie espagnole, for example. There is a similar instance here, where, in Sorabji’s Fantaisie espagnole (1919), he out-Albéniz-es Albéniz.

Sorabji is not one for brevity, nor wall-flower understatedness. Excess is his watchword. One needs only think of Opus Clavicembalisticum. Talking of which, that brings up maybe this set’s one miscalculation. Why include a 13-minute excerpt (the “Introito and Preludio-Corale”) from that magnum opus when there is so much more Sorabji to present? That’s pretty much the only gripe here, and in reality it is an unwarranted one. At the time of the recording of that excerpt (1979), people had to take what they could get, and a complete recording must have seemed an impossibility. We had to wait for John Ogden to turn his spectacles in Sorabji’s direction (a recording exists on the Altarus label). The set here is neatly divided into three segments: Early Works; Nocturnes; Assertive Works. The last description just sounds made up, but is adequate to describe what goes on in disc three.

But to the disc of Early Works first, and what a mix it is. The extreme end to the Fantaisie espagnole, when dissonance is piled on dissonance in a sort of post-Lisztian riot, is extraordinary. But then, extraordinary is the default setting for Sorabji. The delicacy of the opening to the “Valse fantaisie” Hommage à Johann Strauss is infectious. Habermann plays this a sort of “Liszt Fantaisie plus,” and quite rightly so. The pastiches are shorter, but no less effective. The heady fumes of the Hindu Merchant’s Song do rather make one wonder what said merchant smoked in his spare time (amusingly, Habermann suggests something similar about Carmen’s tobacco); the Bizet Carmen pastiche takes all such efforts around this piece before them and smashes them into a million shards in its harmonic genius (listen to those sinuous, snaky lines, those Messiaen-like chords, the multiplicity of layers…). Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz undergoes a heavenly transformation which quickly transmogrifies into something rather more grotesque.

Habermann’s own A la manière de Sorabji: “Au clair de lune” is a mere two minutes duration but actually resulted in a piece back from Sorabji to Habermann (“The Golden Cockerel” by Rimsky-Korsakov: Frivolous Variations with an Anarchic, Heretical, and Perverse Fugue; I for one want to hear the “perverse fugue”).

The second disc features but three works. In its MusicMasters incarnation, Habermann’s account of Le Jardin perfumé made Adrian Corleonis’s and Paul Rapoport’s Wants List in 1983. And so it should. This is a “poem for piano,” with allusions to the erotic book by the 15th-century Sheik Nefzawi. Marked to be never louder than pianissimo from beginning to end, it is, as Habermann rightly points out, predictive of Messiaen in its harmonies. No surprise that Habermann lavishes on it everything he has, while maintaining the real sense that this is tightly organized music: This piece was the subject of his 1985 doctoral dissertation. Habermann also gave the first U.S. performance of this piece (Richmond, Virginia in 1980). Rather more quizzical, Djâmî, a 22-minute nocturne that pays homage to Persian mysticism, seems to speak of Scriabin and Ravel, but passed through a portal to some Otherworld. Heady stuff, even perhaps for Sorabji. Finally for this disc, Gulistan, referring to the verse/prose The Rose Garden of the Persian poet Sa’di (1213-1291; the text in English translation of the full poem is at Perhaps quoting the indicator gives an idea of what is in store: Languido e dolcissimi, il tutto in un ambiente di alore tropicale e profumato, piuttosto nostalgico (Languid and gentle, all enveloped in an atmosphere of tropical warmth and perfume, somewhat nostalgic). Habermann is amazing, presenting a lesson in controlled ecstasy.

The final disc is marked as “Assertive Works”—and how! The first 13:18 of Opus Clavicembalisticum makes one yearn for the balancing several hours; one feels lucky to hear the Prelude, Interlude and Fugue, though, recorded in 1984 and premiered only two years earlier by Habermann. The scales of the Prelude are swathed in mystery, and it by now comes as no shock to learn that the Interlude is a nocturne. Serene yet aching at the same time, and perhaps holding back on the perfume a little in deference to the Prelude and Fugue that surround it, leads to a single-subject fugue that grows into typically Sorabjian largesse.

The Fragment for Harold Rutland and the Fantasiettina are both uncharacteristically short. Rutland was a pianist and critic, amongst other things, and a Sorabji fan. There is a dark depth to this fragment, while the Fantasiettina actually honors the birthday of Hugh MacDiarmid, the poet (and friend of Sorabji). It ends with what the composer referred to as a “volcanic eruption.”

The final two pieces are companion works. Both are based on ghost stories by Montague Rhodes James. In the first, Quære reliqua hujus materiel inter secretiora, taking the story Count Magnus as its inspiration, the central character finds an alchemical work that changes his life—very much for the worse, it would seem, which seems a little harsh on alchemical tracts. The prevailing harmonic language here is sharply dissonant. The second is based on the story Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book. An evil spirit laughs from a bell tower. The Dies irae is used to great effect in this work of extreme contrasts. Habermann is here, as elsewhere, magnificent. His technique simply seems to know no bounds—just as well, really, given the scores.

Be warned: This is addictive music. Do not start a disc if you want to sample five minutes before you head out for a train. Sorabji’s sound-world draws you in like a vortex (in harmonic terms the vortex analogy is completely appropriate also, by the way), and only the mechanism of your CD player when the disc comes to an end might let you go. Colin Clarke

Copyright ©2015 by Colin Clarke, all rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission