Huisman Tackles Sorabji

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SORABJI: Symphonic Nocturne / Lukas Huisman, pno / Piano Classics PCLD0119

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji has been characterized by those who don’t like his music as the ultimate culture snob, a man who withdrew his approval of public performances of his music in the mid-1930s because he was extremely piqued by the many who found his works turgid, overlong and pointless. Part of this is true. Between 1936 and 1976 he banned all performances as well as recordings of his music because he felt it was badly played when it was performed and attacked by critics even when it wasn’t. During this same period, he also refused to publish any of his music. Fortunately for him, he lived a very long time (to age 96!), and towards the end he finally found champions for his work, particularly the American pianist Michael Habermann, whom he finally gave permission to make recordings of it beginning in 1980.

Personally, I find Sorabji’s music utterly fascinating. Wikipedia, and approved musical experts, claim that his music was based on that of Debussy, Busoni and Szymanowski, but I also hear a great deal of Koechlin and the strong influence of Middle Eastern music, particularly Persian (modern-day Iran). Born in London to a wealthy Indian civil engineer who moved to London and an English mother, he was originally named Leon Dudley but hated the name and never considered himself British. This bitter fight for self-identification led to his being estranged from society in addition to his estrangement from the mainstream musical community; he spent many of the intervening years in his life writing acerbic but often witty musical criticism, some of which he published as a book titled Mi Contra Fa. It also didn’t help that he was a homosexual at a time when this was still outlawed in Great Britain.

Interestingly, though Sorabji’s music is quite technically difficult (some of it written on seven staves), he himself was not up to its tasks. When he premiered his magnum opus, the Opus Clavicembalisticum, around 1930—a work that takes four hours to perform and is played without a break—he was so overheated and dehydrated at its conclusion that he had to be hospitalized for a few days. In later years he made private recordings of his own works, such as Gulistān, in which there are numerous errors; his response to this is that the recording showed generally how the piece should be played.

This recording, which came out just before I started my blog in 2016 (which is why I missed reviewing it earlier), is the first recording of the Symphonic Nocturne, Sorabji wrote this in 1977-78, finishing it when he was 86 years old. It is his longest one-movement piece, and as usual his musical language is the same as his earlier works. There is a great deal of chromaticism in his music, as well as a penchant (different from Szymanowski) of having the melody and harmony “move as one.” Yet there are moments of tonal writing within its knotty texture in which the music temporarily achieves repose before it continues along its chromatic way. As Huisman wrote in the liner notes, “After one-and-a-half years of working with the music I start to get a fair overview of its build-up and yet, in many ways, the piece keeps its secrets. Most likely this has something to do with the absence of a clear central idea, structure, theme or even atmosphere… The more I played the piece, the less it seemed appropriate to divide it into two halves. In fact only on page 91 there is a double barline indicating some kind of important interruption, for the rest each idea elaborates on what was said just before—sometimes contrasting with what came just before, sometimes carrying on with the same momentum.”

But there are other moments of repose, even silence, such as at the 29-minute mark in the first half. Sorabji may have baffled and frustrated many a musician and musicologist over the decades, but he knew what he was doing. In many ways, his massive compositions bear as much of a relationship to the work of Charles-Valentin Alkan as to anyone else. I wonder if Sorabji was aware of Alkan’s work. It was certainly obscure during his lifetime but by no means hidden from anyone who wanted to discover it. At 35:36 in the first half there is a remarkable syncopated passage that goes against the grain of a nocturne (as do the numerous loud outbursts) and challenges the pianist to maintain a steady tempo. Later on, there are running single-note bass lines that double the time against the right hand figures. At 47:23, the whole “nocturne” picks up and becomes almost a ragtime dance for several bars.

I point out these seemingly unrelated details in order to indicate the intricate structure of the whole. Although he, like many classical composers, detested jazz, he unwittingly prefaced many of the elements that later jazz pianists would use as devices in their improvisations. Of course, there is nothing improvised in Sorabji’s music—it is thoroughly and resolutely through-composed—but these dance-like elements, quite different from his earlier music, indicate at least one significant move forward. Who knows? Sorabji may have hated Earl Hines or Fats Waller but somehow became fascinated by Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea. This was, after all, their era. You never know how or why certain influences crept into his work.

Symphonic Nocturne p 106

Page 106 from the manuscript of the “Symphonic Nocturne”

Many of the same devices find their way into the second half of the piece; indeed, if anything, the music becomes more syncopated than ever before at the seven-minute mark. These are exactly the kind of things that Sorabji lovers anticipate and enjoy because they are so unexpected, yet also, by the same token, the things that irk those who dislike his music. You either buy into his concept and enjoy the ride, bumpy though it may be, or you walk away and reject it. There is little or no middle ground. Yet I still think that the piece was misnamed. Symphonic Fantasy would have been much more appropriate, as little or nothing in this piece can be described as nocturnal unless one is having vivid nightmares.

Huisman’s performance displays a warm tone as well as total immersion into the music as a whole, and the sonics are terrific, placing the piano front and center realistically. There are so few recordings of Sorabji’s works that those of us who enjoy him look forward to each and every one as a piece of the Holy Grail. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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