Sánchez-Aguilera Plays Sorabji’s “Little” Toccata

cover - PCL10205

SORABJI: Toccata Seconda per Pianoforte / Abel Sánchez-Aguilera, pno / Piano Classics PLC10205

With the release of this first-ever recording of the 1934 Toccata, the Sorabji discography is filling out splendidly. When you add this to the groundbreaking Michael Haberman recordings of the 1970s, which includes the complete Gulistān, TWO recordings of Opus Clavicembalisticum (John Ogden and Geoffrey Madge), the complete 100 Transcendental Studies by Fredrik Ullén (the last two or three CD of which are “in the can,” according to Bis’s Robert van Bahr, but not yet scheduled for release), and that most monumental of pieces, the 8 ½-hour Sequentia Cyclica played by Jonathan Powell on this same label (Piano Classics), things are shaping up very nicely. Of course, we have yet to see/hear these works offered in concert more than once in a blue moon, but that is another issue.

Sorabji described this monstrous, two-hour-plus piece as “an admirable little work of 111 pages (!), one of the best things I’ve done so far,” and he himself premiered it in Glasgow in 1936 under the auspices of the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. It turned out to be his last public appearance as a pianist. The score, like so many of Sorabji’s works, was unpublished for decades. It was finally published in 2004 by the Sorabji Archive.

One questionable aspect of this performance that popped into my mind as soon as I read it is the description, on the back cover of this CD, that the work, edited for its 2004 publication by Alexander Abercrombie, here contains “further revisions by Abel Sánchez-Aguilera.” I was curious about this, particularly since there was no explanation in the accompanying liner notes, written by the pianist himself. In a personal message to me on Facebook, however, Sánchez-Aguilera explained to me that this was a typographical error which has since been removed from final copies of the CD, replaced by simply “edited” and not “further revisions,” meaning that he simply double-checked the published score against the composer’s manuscript to make sure there were no errors. Judging not only from Sorabji’s own surviving recording of Gulistān (a BBC radio broadcast from the early 1960s), but also from his own admission that he was “not a perfect pianist, but I know how the music is supposed to sound,” we know that Sorabji’s technical keyboard skills were not virtuosic enough to encompass his massively difficult pieces. This is one reason why he was forever cajoling, buttering up and begging Dutch virtuoso Egon Petri to play his music—which Petri, though he claimed admiration for Sorabji, never did. (Petri did, however, play some of the most difficult pieces of Busoni and Alkan, and in fact was the first pianist to record any Alkan piece, the Symphonie pour piano, in 1954.)

Some portions of this Toccata are indeed simple and even charming—witness, for instance, the chime-chord “Corale” in the “Preludio”—but as usual for this composer, their lengths are gargantuan. This “Corale,” for instance, runs 17:27, and in fact comes to a dead stop right in the middle before resuming at an even slower pace than that which started it. At this point, however, the chord sequences are tied into the melodic movement as he wends his way through several variations. This is a typical Sorabjian device, one that he used in most of his huge works. As the composer wrote to Erik Chisholm, however:

I think the Toccata will surprise you, particularly the romantic Aria and the tropical night Nocturne. The fugue [in five voices and lasting longer than 32 minutes] will roll you out flat. Technically a “simple” one, it includes huge episodes of a fugal nature upon the four countersubjects, and is as fine a fugue as any I’ve ever done, I think.

As I pointed out in my review of the Sequentia Cyclica, this sort of self-aggrandizement as well as the gargantuan size of his compositions were typical of Sorabji, a wounded bird who could not comfortably fit into society due to the dual stigma of his music’s massive complexity and his homosexuality, to which one need also add the vitriolic criticism of his father for having gone into composing as a profession in the first place. His music was his way of showing the world that he was a genius—which he was—in a manner so completely overwhelming that he made his scores too big for most pianists to bother learning or performing. His reaction to one poor performance was to ban all public performances of his works for roughly 40 years until Michael Haberman came along.

The “Scherzo” is a very odd affair, a piece that lopes along in clumsy, off-kilter rhythms. I suspect that he thought the constant irregularity of the beat was the musical joke in itself. Whether or not he intended it, and I suspect he didn’t, some of the passages in this resemble but do not quite cross over into jazz. (I believe that he, like all high-brow musical intellectuals of his time, looked down on jazz as utter trash.) Many of the parts of this Scherzo are also clumsy and mismatched; themes are juxtaposed more often than developed, and even when development appears it, too, lurches forward with a clumsy gait. After a very long pause at the end, the music concludes with two superfluous but, in their own way, funny little chords. In the liner notes, Sánchez-Aguilera points out that Sorabji used “parodic quotations” in this movement, using Saint-Saëns’ “Printemps qui commence” and Mozart’s “Dove sono,” but you really have to strain to pick these up.

The “romantic” Aria is indeed romantic in feeling but not really in construction. Its nearly continual sequence of soft block chords, played with the sustain pedal, is built around irregular harmonies based more on modes than scales. When the melody finally appears—played in the middle of the keyboard in single notes while the right hand continues to move through soft block chords—it has a more melodic, chorale-like sound, but the strange chord positions continue to make the harmony shift like quicksand underneath it. This is a device that Sorabji used fairly often, particularly in his Transcendental Studies.

The ensuing Ostinato, played in a similarly slow tempo and again using chime chords as its basis, sounded to me like an extension of the Aria. Here, Sorabji moves the steadily-moving rhythm from the left hand (in the opening) to the right hand, at that point using the left-hand figures to break up the rhythm and completely change the harmonic movement. It is, the notes tell us, “a long passacaglia on a 14-note bass, first heard alone and followed by 49 variations.” As it turns out, this is the second-longest movement in this Toccata, running 21:51 and in fact concluding the first CD.

The Notturno, another slow movement, runs a little over 14 minutes and consists of another moving bass line—this one combining single notes with chords—while the right hand plays an out-of-tempo series of flourishes in both eighths and triplets, using exotic chords to create a mysterious aura. This is one of the few moments in Sorabji’s huge output that seems to draw a bit on his Farsi heritage, of which he was inordinately proud. (Although born in England and christened Leon Dudley, he rejected both the nationality of his birthplace and his given names, further distancing himself from his social surroundings.) The development section becomes quite knotty, particularly in the middle where Sorabji requires the performer to constantly juggle two opposing rhythms in the two hands for a considerable stretch of time. Shall we dance?

By contrast, the relatively short (eight-minute) “Interludio: Moto perpetuo” is a relatively fast-moving piece with another of Sorabji’s devices, the melodic line that suddenly seems to combine what is played in the left hand to the right-hand figures near the middle of the keyboard. The “Cadenza: Punto organo” is a loud, almost violent-sounding piece that lasts only four minutes and 23 seconds, with some very complex figures in its midst, followed by the immense “Fuga” already mentioned. This is, like many of J.S. Bach’s fugues (a composer who Sorabji admired very much), a slow-moving piece that eventually encompasses five voices, the subject being unusually long, lasting more than a full minute. If one adds to this the concluding “Coda – Stretta,” in which “various versions of the subject and all countersubjects are combined in a final polyphonic development that seems to emulate the effect of a full organ,” this fugue lasts not 32 minutes but 42 ½ minutes. It is a typically Sorabjian “in-your-face” moment, establishing his intellectual superiority over all comers. The fugue suddenly doubles in tempo just before the 16-minute mark, at which point its complexity becomes even more apparent.


Abel Sánchez-Aguilera

I always give pianists who play and record Sorabji’s music the benefit of the doubt as to their prowess, providing that I hear what seems to me a lively and well-varied performance, since I have no basis for comparison since nearly all of his major works (excepting, of course, the Opus Clavicembalisticum) have no other versions to use as a comparison. But considering that our pianist on this disc was also a Biochemist who carried out research on leukemia, and whose studies on tamoxifen as a treatment for blood cancers led to an ongoing clinical trial, I would certainly bow to his superior intellect as well as his phenomenal skills at the keyboard. May he make further recordings, preferably of modern music such as this, for years to come!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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