Fredrik Ullén’s Sorabji Project Continues

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Sorabji TRANSCENDENTAL STUDIES, Vol. 5 / No. 72: Canonica: Marcato; No. 73: Quasi Preludio-corale: Sonorità piena, morbida e dolcissima; No. 74: Ostinato: Secco; No. 75: Passacaglia: Largo; No. 76: Imitations: Presto assai; No. 77: Mouvement semblable e perpétuel: Scorrevole; No. 78: No title; No. 79: The inlaid line: Legatissimo il tema melodico; No. 80: La linea melodica: Mormorando sordamente; No. 81: The Suspensions: Lento quasi adagio e gravamente solenne; No. 82: Sordamente e oscuramente minaccioso; No. 83: Arpeggiated fourths / Fredrik Ullén, pianist / Bis 2223

Here is the latest installment in Fredrik Ullén’s ongoing project to record all 100 of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Transcendental Studies or Etudes. It is as monumental in its own way, if not more so, than the recordings—rare as they are (only two of them so far)—of the same composer’s humungous blockbuster, the Opus Clavicembalisticum (one by John Ogden, which the composer did not like, and one by Geoffrey Douglas Madge, a pianist the composer liked very much indeed). Considering the rarity of live performances of Sorabji’s piano music and its extremely limited appeal to the average concertgoer (if, in fact, they even know of its existence…I didn’t until about six years ago), one asks the question, Is this a worthwhile project?

The question is rhetorical because, in a very large sense, Sorabji’s music is rhetorical, expressed in terms intended to impress listeners with its dazzle, its difficulty, its sheer abundance of notes and the manner in which they are ordered. It is not accidental that synonyms for the word rhetorical include “bombastic, grandiose, pompous and flowery,” all of which Sorabji’s music is, but of course no one would even want to play it if it didn’t have substance beneath the bombast, as is also the case of music by Charles-Valentin Alkan, Art Tatum, and to a less consistent extent, Franz Liszt. Roughly 30 years ago there was a flurry of recordings by a pianist-composer named Richard Nanes, who took out full-page ads on the back cover of each month’s Schwann Record Catalog. His music, too, was flowery and garrulous, but most critics who listened to it came to realize that it had little if any substance. Only many years later did we learn that Nanes’ full-time job was as the executive president and co-owner of the Nanes Finishing and Assembly Corporation of Newark, New Jersey, which is where he got all the money he needed to promote his records and his career. He died, virtually forgotten by the music business, in 2009.

But the story of Richard Nanes is not a distraction or a sideline to the subject at hand, because to many untrained ears his music was, and remains, extraordinary beautiful to listen to because it is conventionally “pretty.” Nanes could contrive any number of tonal, melodic themes and run them into the ground with repetition and rococo flourishes. To many listeners, there is much the same going on in the music of Alkan and Sorabji. In fact, there was never a point in history when Sorabji was well known or even particularly well liked, and this is true even today, but concentrated listening to his music reveals a wildly imaginative mind that was constantly thinking “outside the box.” Yes, there are extended passages and even whole pieces where he flaunts conventional music construction and seems to be going off on tangents, but more often than not there is a tremendous underlying feeling and structure in his music that simply cannot be ignored.

And the first two Studies or Etudes on this new CD are perfectly illustrative of what I mean. The first etude, No. 72, is all flashing keyboard runs and difficult two-handed interaction, all of which Ullén handles with almost carefree aplomb. He is a remarkable pianist in that no matter how confused or turgid the actual music is, he manages to make everything sound clear and well-ordered, and he does so here, but there is no escaping the fact that the piece itself is simply a brief musical explosion. Following this, however, is one of Sorabji’s quietest, calmest and most introverted etudes, No. 73 (Quasi Preludio-corale), which only opens up in terms of volume and energy at roughly the 11-minute mark. We may also note the vastly uneven timings of these 12 etudes: No. 76 barely over a minute, Nos. 77 and 78 about a minute and a half, Nos. 72 and 82 just a bit over two minutes. By contrast, etudes Nos. 74, 80, 81 and 83 are at about the “normal” length one thinks of etudes as being (four to five minutes), while No. 73 runs nearly 18 minutes and No. 75, the Passacaglia: Largo, running nearly a half hour. Sorabji, then, was a composer who wrote his music as long as he felt the inspiration to do so.

It should also be noted, for those who don’t know it, that although Sorabji performed some of his works in public, including his massive Opus Clavicembalisticum, he was not an accomplished virtuoso. He once commented, when someone complained that his own homemade recording of Gulistan had many errors in it, that he was not a pianist but that his own performances were intended to give an impression of how he wanted his pieces to go. From 1938 until 1976 he placed a ban on public performances of his music because he had heard a performance in 1936 that was far too slow and robbed the music of its momentum. Aesthetically speaking, Sorabji was most strongly influenced by three of the most harmonically advanced composers of the 1910s, Claude Debussy (particularly the late etudes, which developed irregular forms to an extreme), Ferruccio Busoni (whose Piano Concerto is still considered a massive and thorny work both for performers and listeners), and Alexander Scriabin (whose music leaned towards atonality and even, at times, serialism), despite his long friendship with British composer Peter Warlock (realname Philip Heseltine). In his later years, Sorabji admitted that the death of Busoni in 1924 and Heseltine’s suicide in 1930 hurt him very deeply indeed and may have contributed to his already hermitic nature.

But to return to the music at hand: the smaller pieces tend towards one mood, the larger ones towards several. Etude No. 74, only 4:22 long, sounds for all the world like one of Alkan’s pieces, while the huge No. 75 begins somewhat quietly but soon develops into a more complex and, one might say, congested vortex of sound. I believe that part of Sorabji’s aesthetic was to hypnotize the listener, to draw him or her into the musical vortex that was going on in his mind and was being transferred to paper. This is not necessarily a function of Western music, but it is often a function of Eastern mysticism, and as a Farsi Sorabji was probably combining East and West in his mind and in his compositions. Yet of course even the shorrter pieces are obscure in melody and geared towards this hypnotic state. When Sorabji performed his own Opus Clavicembalisticum in 1930, he was said to have been in a self-induced trance throughout and, at the end of the four hours it took to play it, drenched in sweat and in a weakened condition. You talk about music that takes a lot out of you!

The listener is brought up time and again by the sheer complexity of this music. It is almost too much to take in at one sitting, just as it is too much to listen—carefully—to Art Tatum play jazz more than 20 minutes in one sitting. Yet there is great value in this music, and not only in terms of its hypnotic effect. Sorabji pointed forward towards a new aesthetic that, in a sense, bypassed the listener—at least, the casual listener. Part of its complexity was also a wall to protect his music against being cheapened by mass appeal as well as to protect his fragile id against “popularity.” Those who were involved with him in his later years, among them Michael Habermann, found him to be the complete opposite of his music: warm, genial, generous with his time and unselfish in his unstinting praise of those he felt understood what he was doing. In short, Sorabji wanted to communicate himself through his music; he just didn’t want every casual classical listener, particularly those who think bel canto opera is high art or that Chopin is the begin-all and end-all of great piano music, access to his mind and heart. To reach Sorabji you had to climb the mountain of his music, and that is what Fredrik Ullén is doing in this magnificent series of recordings. You may not be one of those who responds positively to Sorabji’s aesthetic; it’s certainly not for everybody; but if you can dig it, it’s here for you at last.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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