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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 Peter J. Rabinowitz

It was nearly 35 years ago that Michael Habermann made the first commercial recording of Sorabji’s music. The composer himself had given some scattered concerts in the 1920s and 1930s; piano maven Donald Garvelmann produced a radio show in 1970; and a few tapes circulated among cognoscenti. But for the most part, those of us who had heard of Sorabji at all knew only the composer’s self-nourished legend. Everything about him was hyperbolic. We “knew” that as a composer, his music was dense, hermetic, technically at the border of the unplayable (his music rarely fits on two staves), and often stretching the listener’s patience beyond endurance. (His fame rested in part on the Guinness Book of World Records—inaccurately—having chosen Opus Clavicemablisticum as the world’s longest non-repetitive work for solo piano, just as Brian’s fame was bolstered similarly by Guinness’s celebration of the scope of the “Gothic” Symphony). We also “knew” that as a writer, his persona was irascible, opinionated, dogmatic: “Elgar is a composer of no more than a limitedly local significance,” he pronounced in Gramophone in 1945—and that was one of his less vitriolic remarks. Stendhal dedicated Le rouge et le noir “to the happy few”; Sorabji upped the ante by dedicating Opus Clavicembalisticum in part to “the everlasting glory of those few MEN blessed and sanctified in the curses of the MANY whose praise is eternal damnation.” Vladimir Nabokov was, by comparison, a model of modesty.

In one stroke, Habermann—with confidence, interpretive penetration, and staggering virtuosity—allowed us to see beyond (or through) that legend. It was, of course, followed by a number of other Sorabji recordings, including competing readings of Opus Clavicembalisticum by Geoffrey Madge and John Ogden, and an ongoing project by Fredrik Ullén to record the 100 Transcendental Studies; but Habermann’s pioneering disc remains a touchstone. It was reissued several times and, about a decade ago, the British Music Society bundled it together on a three-disc compendium with Habermann’s two follow-ups for Musical Heritage/Musicmasters and his Elan recital (minus the alternative recording of Djâmî). It’s that BMS set that shows up, again, in this new re-reissue from Naxos.

Rehearing these performances, the most recent of which is now 20 years old, may well bring back the shocking illumination of that initial discovery. At the same time, the set may provide a clue about why—even with the advocacy of some of the most ferociously talented pianists of the age—Sorabji’s music has remained arcane. On the positive side, it’s hard not to be captivated, even hypnotized, by the sheer luxury of the three nocturnes on the second disc: Le jardin parfumé, Djâmî, and Gulistan, all inspired by Medieval literature of the Middle East, and all offering a timbrally and texturally rich tapestry next to which even Godowsky sounds threadbare. It’s hard, too, not to be stunned by what Adrian Corleonis (in Fanfare 19:2) called the “angular, dramatic, electrically crackling gestures” of Quaere reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora. (Its title might lead you to expect something of a religious bent, but it was in fact inspired, as was St. Bertrand de Comminges: “He was laughing in the tower,” by an M. R. James ghost story.) Anyone with an interest in the art of fugue will want to hear the brilliantly intricate final panel in the Prelude, Interlude and Fugue. And no lover of musical transformation could fail to be bowled over by his extravagant homages to (or caricatures of?) Chopin, Johann Strauss II, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Bizet (or rather, to add another turn to the screw, Bizet’s adaption of music originally by Sebastian de Yradier), homages next to which the transcriptions of Liszt seem like child’s play. From beginning to end, this is a collection that testifies to a musical mind equally at home in the sensual and the intellectual, in the dramatic and the burlesque.

At the same time, these short works (at least, short in the context of Sorabji’s canon—Gulistan runs nearly half an hour here) point to the characteristics that still make Sorabji a difficult figure. To simplify: If there is a musical parallel to the literary distinction between narrative (which centers on the representation of an action) and lyric (the representation of a condition such as a mood or an emotional situation), Sorabji usually falls (his fugues and pastiches aside) on the lyrical side. That’s most obviously true in the languorous nocturnes—but even the more dramatic works here ostentatiously avoid the traditional Western rhetoric (especially the rhetoric of the Romantic and post-Romantic periods) that marks out beginning, middle, and end or that sets up strong patterns of expectation and resolution. Harmonies are so consistently chromatic that there’s rarely a sense of harmonic motion; rhythms are so intricate and fluid (don’t count on time signatures and bar lines to guide you), and so many rhythmic patterns are superimposed, that any sense of pulse dissolves; and while recognizable gestures flicker and transform themselves through his music like ghosts, he steadfastly rejects “tunes which everybody can get hold of” (a phrase that became a token in a debate with H. A. Scott in The Musical Times). It’s easy to sit and soak up the “experience”—but for all its hyperactivity, it remains a paradoxically static aesthetic. In a Gramophone review from July 1993, David Fanning coined the phrase “somnabulistically surefooted”—and once you read that phrase, it’s hard to forget it. For all Sorabji’s admiration of Busoni (“a philosophical mind of the highest order, the like and equal of which happens at most half a dozen times in one millennium—a mind of the caliber of da Vinci’s or Goethe’s”), there’s little of Busoni’s lucidity here; for all his admiration of Medtner, there’s little of Medtner’s formal acuity; for all his admiration of Scriabin, there’s none of late Scriabin’s concentration. (Scriabin’s projected Mysterium is another matter—but it’s significant, and perhaps fortunate, he never actually wrote it; see 23:5 for a discussion of Nemtin’s ill-considered realization.)

Then, too, Sorabji’s scores are something of a mess, and sometimes internally contradictory (the opening of Jardin parfumé gives a peremptory order that the dynamics should never rise above pianissimo—but although dynamic markings are rare, several call for louder playing). Several contemporary pianists (including Marc-André Hamelin and Charles Hopkins) have had to devote what must be untold hours making new editions. To add to the problems, while Sorabji fashioned himself a recluse and an outsider, there’s something disturbingly self-aggrandizing about his work. He justified many of his artistic choices by pointing to non-Western practices—and that’s certainly fair, at least to a certain extent. Still, Sorabji was writing within a Western context, in Western notation, for the quintessential instrumental protagonist of Western Romanticism; and despite his disdain for the musical ignorance of “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” his audience is ultimately Western as well. In that context, his refusal to prune his music, both vertically and horizontally, seems (dare one say it?) to border on the narcissistic. Once he gets you in his spell, he insists on protracted devotion.

Still, that spell is potent—and doubly so in the hands of Habermann, whose performances hold up well, even superbly. The joie de battre of the early Toccata, the huge waves of post-Impressionistic sound of the sultry Fantaisie espagnole, the sumptuousness of the melodic tendrils that eventually overpower the Habanera, the bolts of lightning in St. Bertrand, the quirks of the fugue in Prelude, Interlude and Fugue (which might, for a brief moment, make you think you’re getting one of Shostakovich’s fugues), the suggestive quiet of Djâmî—everything emerges with utter conviction. The sound, from a variety of locales, holds up well too. Whether you’re a fan of the composer who somehow missed these recordings in their earlier incarnations or a newcomer wondering what the fuss is about, this set belongs in your collection. Peter J. Rabinowitz

Copyright ©2015 by Peter J. Rabinowitz, all rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission