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January/February, 2004

SORABJI Piano Music and Transcriptions, Michael Habermann (pn). BIS CD-1306 (68:22)

Transcription of Ravelís Rapsodie espagnole. Passeggiata veneziana. Symphonic Variations: No. 56. Quasi habanera. Transcription in the light of Harpsichord Technique for the Modern Piano of the Chromatic Fantasia of J. S. Bach, followed by a Fugue. Pasticcio capriccioso sopra op. 64/1 dello Chopin.

By Paul Rapoport

About 25 years ago on a minor label, Michael Habermann began recording LPs of the music of Sorabji. In fact, those were the first recordings of Sorabjiís music. They were pretty good. Now he comes to BIS, and the result is even better.

First, a word about the composer. The background of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was Parsi, even as he was born and lived in England. He was born in 1892, but refused to divulge that to any but his closest friends. (Amusingly, one place in the notes to this CD says 1894.) He studied music privately for a few years around the start of World War I but was essentially self-taught. He wrote music for 70 years, most of it unperformed to this day. He died in 1988.

His most famous work is Opus clavicembalisticum, for piano, lasting about four-and-a-half hours. Unbelievably, it has been recorded three times. It is by no means his longest composition.

His music often derives from Baroque and post-Romantic models; for classical symmetry and dualism he had no use, ditto for most of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartůk, and other 20th-century pioneers. He admired most Ferruccio Busoni, whom he heard and for whom he once (very nervously) played. He often wrote favorably of Liszt, Alkan, Reger, Mahler, Szymanowski, and Rachmaninoff when they were derided or even unknown in England.

Sorabjiís works are alarmingly difficult to play because of their luxurious ornamentation, often in many voices spread over three or more staves; unrelated simultaneous rhythms; other highly virtuosic demands; lack of tempo, dynamic, and other phrase markings; and a free, improvisatory approach to musical elaboration. On top of that, as suggested, many of his works are extraordinarily long.

Some have remarked that Sorabji never used one note where six would do. But the thing is, those six usually do very well!

The works on this CD arenít long. Mostly they are impossible to play anyhow - except that Habermann plays them. He doesnít merely get through them; he convinces us that theyíre no great problem. Following some of the manuscript scores while listening to this CD indicated to me that Habermann must be an extraterrestrial with three or more hands (and brains).

The real find here is Passeggiata veneziana, five inspired short movements based on the beautiful Barcarolle from Offenbachís Tales of Hoffmann. The much earlier Pasticcio capriccioso is the second of Sorabjiís mortifying transmogrifications of Chopinís Minute Waltz.

The transcriptions alone show Sorabji to be a master composer not far from great transcribers, such as Liszt and Busoni. He didnít like Bachís fugue to his own Chromatic Fantasy, so he substituted another, which may not even be by Bach. It doesnít matter. His creative imagination could have used a fugue by the King of Siam. The Ravel transcription captures Ravel in a most unRavelian way, if that makes any sense.

The Symphonic Variations probably last seven-plus hours; this one variation is all that has ever been recorded, and itís scintillating. Quasi habanera is an early work that projects no inexperience, rather a marvelous Hispanic manner that Sorabji returned to in several works.

The Passeggiata is also on Altarus, the label producing the most Sorabji recordings by far. Jonathan Powell plays it differently, sometimes with more sweep. But Habermann is clearer, thanks in part to a better-recorded acoustic and his mania for accuracy. (Thatís a reference to Sorabjiís well-known understatement that he had a "mania for privacy.") Powell plays the Tarantella movement more effectively (faster, unbelievably), but Habermann brings out the magic near the end of the notturnino more.

Powellís CD also has the late Villa Tasca, a whole other story. No one seriously interested in Sorabji can do without both recordings or - the other comparison - Fredrik Ullťnís wildly different recording of the Pasticcio, on a BIS CD with many transcriptions by other composers.

Iíd put Habermannís CD on this yearís Want List, but I put it on last yearís, having obtained a copy a little early. Except for the most baroque and most extended, itís a fine introduction to Sorabjiís music.

Copyright ©2004 by Paul Rapoport, all rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission