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Classical Music Web

October 2003

Kaikhosru Shapurji SORABJI (1692-1988)

  • Passeggiata Veneziana (1956) [21.33]
  • Variation 56 from Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1935-37) [2.41]
  • Quasi Habanera (1917) [4.59]
  • Maurice RAVEL Rapsodie Espagnole transc. Sorabji (1908, 1945) [18.05]
  • Johann Sebastian BACH Transcription in the light of harpsichord technique for the modern piano of the Chromatic Fantasia of J.S. Bach, followed by a Fugue (1940) [15.23]
  • Fryderyk CHOPIN Pasticcio Capriccioso sopra Op. 64 No. 1 dello Chopin (1933) based on the Valse Op. 64 No. 1 'Minute Waltz' by Fryderyk Chopin [4.13]

Michael Habermann (piano)

rec. Studio 4a, National Public Radio, Washington DC, USA. 5-6 Jan, 9-10 Mar, 22 June 2001, DDD

BIS-CD-1306 [68.20]

By Rob Barnett

Sorabji is another of those composers whose reputation existed on fable. Audacious pianists - wise or foolish - gradually sketched in the details, sometimes in truth and at others unwittingly misleading. It is difficult to gain a perspective but we know that far far more about this composer's music is unknown than known. Of course we have his books Mi Contra Fa (1947) and Around Music (1932). From these we can glimpse his praise for two lions of the transcriber's art: Liszt (whose operatic fantasies he held in high regard) and Leopold Godowsky. It is the transcriber's art that forms the centre of gravity for this disc. The Ravel Rapsodie is no mere technical exercise. In this performance there are many moments where poetic eloquence is to the fore (e.g. the haunting Prélude à la Nuit and in the Feria at 3.11 - those smokily languid slurs). At others the ‘three-hand’ effects and fistfuls of notes leave you in awe and an emotion I cannot quite pindown between tragically frustrated aspiration and magnificent achievement. The Passeggiata is based on Offenbach's famous Barcarolle. This is dissected and dressed in threads of silvery gold gauze, diaphanous, iridescent. The Notturnino section (there are six, each separately tracked) carries a typically sultry expression marking: Sonnolento, languidamente voluttuoso, sonorita sempre piena e calorosa. The dedicatee is York Bowen whose Twenty-Four Preludes (recorded by Marie-Catherine Girod on a now difficult to source Opès 3D disc). The Passeggiata is the only piece here of which Habermann did not give the world premiere. Variation 56 is a Mephistphelian exercise in ruthlessly motoric energy. The Quasi Habanera of 1917, indolently languid as the expression mark indicates, is dedicated to another unknown, Norman Peterkin. Peterkin's oriental suites for solo piano are reputed to be of the highest imaginative accomplishment and should be explored by an aspiring star pianist with the integrity to make their debut recording with music that is a completely closed book. The Quasi Habanera is not a transcription and evinces none of the heroic contrivance of the Ravel reworking. We are told in Mr Habermann's notes that the Bach transcription has attracted controversy from purists. This is not surprising for Sorabji builds Gaudi-like romantic excrescences and extravagant ornamentation onto the original. The music can best be appreciated if we approach it as a work in its own right and enjoy it as we would a Stokowski or Elgar orchestral transcription. Simplicity is not alien to Sorabji as the start of the Fugue (tr.14) and the Ripresa of the Passeggiata (tr.10) show. The Pasticcio capriccioso is his second reworking of the Chopin piece. Its heaps wild chordal assaults and great awkward screes of notes never lose site of the shards and shapes of the original.

We must take Habermann's Sorabjian 'truth' on trust and be grateful for these thunderous and whispering intimations of a fantastic composer's struggle to wrest something rich and strange from the rude mechanical device of the keyboard.

The British Music Society propose to issue a three CD set of Habermann's other Sorabji recordings. It is hoped that this will be out early in 2004.

Copyright ©2003 by Rob Barnett, all rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission