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SORABJI Legendary Works for Piano

Early Works; Nocturnes: Assertive Works

Michael Habermann piano

[1980-1995 - 3 CDs for price of 2 from BMS]

The English/Parsee composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) is a cult figure, best remembered until recently not for his astonishing oeuvre of transcendental piano music, but on account of the ban he imposed on public performances of his music for many years. Much of it remains unperformed, e.g. the Djami Symphony (1942-51) requiring hundreds of musicians and running to a thousand pages; something to set against Mahler's Eighth and Havergal Brian's Gothic?

Michael Habermann's devotion to mastering this composer's piano corpus is reflected in the excellent notes and eassays in this fine production, which I approached with sceptical curiosity, but have found increasingly absorbing and compelling. Habemann was committed to perfect his rendering to the letter of the seemingly-unplayable scores (which some had thought would better have been published as player-piano rolls) to the extent that he practised one bar of one piece for a whole week...

That obsession reminded me of a period when I, a modest amateur pianist, became hooked on the piano music of Giacinto Scelsi and acquired most of it, practising daily music which looked dauntingly complicated at first until I found that the chords were more comfortable under the hands than had appeared; that led to a number of publications and a continuing interest, with an enduring hope that a book in English on that important composer, one as off-beat and eccentric as Sorabji, will eventually transpire.

Habermann's generous selection collected here is well divided. The earlier works include dazzling virtuoso pieces which reminded me of the sort of encores with which pianists like Cherkassky used to wow their audiences; unashamedly over the top.

The three major pieces grouped as Nocturnes are perhaps the core of this compilation. Djhami was played to Sorabji by Habermann when they met, to fulsome congratulation "- - more marvellously than I had thought possible", he said. The Rose Garden is sumptuously sensual; Sorabji recorded it himself in 1965, with numerous deviations from the written music, liberties taken on the spur of the moment. But the composer confirmed that "the music as printed embodies my intentions" and that, precisely, is what Habermann offers in a digital recording of his world premiere performance of 1995.

The "assertive" works on Disc 3 are very different, some of formidable contrapuntal complexity and two inspired by M R James ghost stories, dramatic tone poems with "jagged textures and disjointed phrases".

Rather than duplicating descriptions of the individual works, I refer you to Rob Barnett's full evaluation of this "thoroughly engrossing anthology" which "would make a natural addition to the shelves of lovers of the music of Scriabin, Goossens, Szymanowski, Czesław Marek, Griffes and Godowsky", complete with comprehensive listings.

There is also a discography with 35 discs of recordings by other eminent pianists, showing thumbprints of the covers; one of my contributors tells me that " - - iconic recordings remain Yonty Solomon's Le Jardin Parfume and Hamelin's Sonata No.1", neither of which I have heard.

Peter Grahame Woolf