Sorabji’s Piano Sonatas

Sorabji CD covers

SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 0 / Soheil Nasseri, pno / Centaur CRC2894, also available for free streaming on YouTube

SORABJI: In the Hothouse / Steven Max, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube

SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 1 / Marc-André Hamelin, pno / Altarus AIR-CD9050, also available for free streaming on YouTube

SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 2 / Tellef Johnson, pno / Altarus AIR-CD9049 (out of print)

SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 5, “Opus Archimagicum”: Cadenza / Kyle Hannenberg, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube

Having gone through all the available commercial recordings of Sorabji’s massive-scaled piano music, I began searching online for a few outliers, and thought I would share my interesting experiences with you, my loyal readers.

The Sonata No. 0, written in 1917, was Sorabji’s first full-scale piano work. Although there are several indications of the composer he was yet to evolve into, such as the exhaustive theme development, the themes themselves are less innovative than we are now used to. He leans heavily on chromatics, borrowed from his favorite French composers of the time, and the pentatonic scale, borrowed from Scriabin who had just passed away two years earlier.

The other intriguing feature of this sonata is its eclectic form. Whereas in his later works Sorabji became a master at blending themes, variations and even very long fugues together, here he juxtaposes musical ideas much more often. For the most part this works, yet there are still some odd moments where the sudden jump from one mood and theme to an entirely different mood and/or theme seem to be spur of the moment decisions; and yet, as Marc-André Roberge points out in his masterly study of Sorabji and his work, Opus Sorabjianum (self-published, Québec, 2013/2020), “The work is unique in Sorabji’s production for its several crossed-out passages—in fact 42 out of 150 systems (or 48 bars out of 260) are entirely or partially cancelled, quite at random, it seems, since there is no meaningful link on either side of a cut that would make it logical for one bar to follow another. Sorabji must have simply considered his work too long and decided to cross out systems (p. 90).”

Whatever the reason, however, this makes the sonata sound much more episodic than usual for him. I have often complained that Ferruccio Busoni’s long piano works annoy me for the same reason: they seem to be, so to speak, all icing and no cake, and here Sorabji seems to be on the same track. Yet even at this early, imperfect stage of his career, the music still has several worthwhile things to hear, juxtaposed or not. He is already using some very rich and complex chord positions and leaning towards bitonality. Sorabji never became a full apostle of serial music though he greatly admired Schoenberg and Berg, just as he never entirely abandoned his love of exotic-sounding chords, some borrowed from Debussy and Ravel and some from the Middle Eastern music of his father’s cultural heritage. It is, I think, a bit too much to consider most of Sorabji’s output a fusion of Eastern and Western forms, but this sonata as well as his later Gulistan clearly have a foot in the strange (to our ears) musical systems of Eastern music.

The basic flaw of this oddly formed sonata, as I hear it, is that musical ideas that later would flow like a river, pure and unadulterated, from Sorabji’s mind and pen emerge here as oddly fitted pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You can almost,  but not quite, hear what Sorabji probably had in mind at certain points because of your familiarity with his longer, more mature works, yet the abrupt and often ill-fitting joins in the music strike the ear as jarring. It’s like someone relating to you the story of their journey around the world, only to leave out certain flight connections and/or omitting a city or two from the landscape they explored. You can infer what happened in the missing sections, but the “jumping around” of the musical story is rather frustrating.

Sorabji was much more on track the following year when he wrote his six-minute nocturne, In the Hothouse. Here, nothing is missing or cut out, and although it is brief the musical ideas flow smoothly.

The “official” Piano Sonata No. 1, written in 1919 and published in 1921, is much different. Here, Sorabji allowed his imagination to take him wherever it would, and he did not hold back on the interesting byways and little back alleys that the thread of music traveled through. Opening up in the snappy time signature of 7/8, it moves to 4/4 after three bars, goes back to 7/8 two bars later, then shifts to 6/4 a bar after that. Other neat little time signatures come and go throughout the work, including 13/8, 5/4, 9/8, 10/8, 14/8 and 15/8. He even came up with his own musical symbol, the Roman numeral I over the Roman numeral VIII, to indicate that the notes on that stave should be played an octave higher than written. (Why he didn’t just use the standard 8va—— that everyone else did is beyond me.) Yet when played, somehow this crazy-quilt of time divisions makes musical sense, though Sorabji eventually throws in some double-time figures to interrupt the exotic flow of notes he has set up. You can access the score of this sonata by clicking Sorabji Piano Sonata 1.

Sonata No. 1, p. 11

Sonata No. 1, page 11

What I and many others find so strange about Sorabji’s music is that it was beyond his own abilities to play. A self-taught pianist, he was by his own admission no virtuoso, which is exactly what is needed to play his difficult works, yet he himself played his own Opus Clavicembalisticum in public once (Glasgow, December 1, 1930) and later made home recordings of his own music which are highly flawed. His own statement that getting the notes right wasn’t quite as important as getting the feeling right seems to be at odds with his damnably difficult scores. I mean, seriously, why write such technically demanding, convoluted bars of music if the feeling was more important than the notes? This is but one strange contradiction in Sorabji’s personality that, to my mind, has never been fully resolved.

Sonata 2 coverPianist Tellef Johnson, a name completely unknown to me, made a recording of Sorabji’s longer Second Piano Sonata in 1999 for Altarus but although I could not find it available either for purchase or streaming, I am told that it is still available. Published in 1923, this one contains no time signatures at all; it just goes flying along at a typically manic pace with typically difficult figures to play in each and every bar.

Sonata No. 2, p. 2

Piano Sonata No. 2, page 2

There is also a complete recording of Sorabji’s Piano Sonata No. 4 by Jonathan Powell, the same pianist who recorded the Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae for Piano Classics, on the Altarus label. Though a bit pricey ($34.37 plus $10 shipping), it is a three-CD set which you can order HERE. Unfortunately there is no complete recording, either live or studio, of the complete Piano Sonata No. 5, subtitled “Opus Archimagicum,” but concert pianist Kyle Hannenberg, here sporting long, stringy hair, a white T-shirt and jeans, looking for all the world like just another Millennial, sat down at the piano and filmed himself playing the “Cadenza” from this sonata. It is a stunning performance, full of vigor and energy, and Hannenberg even manages to make the running bass line sound a little like jazz—surely an unusual feat for anything by Sorabji.

It’s a shame that Sorabji’s piano sonatas are not available on CDs in good, complete performances except for Nos. 0, 1 and 4, but that’s the price you pay for being an “outsider” as a composer. But hey, you wanna hear Rachmaninov Sonatas? Or Schubert or Brahms? Well, that’s different.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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3 thoughts on “Sorabji’s Piano Sonatas

  1. “Scriabin who had just passed away three years earlier”; two, actually.

    “I have often complained that Ferruccio Busoni’s long piano works annoy me for the same reason”. Which are Busoni’s “long piano works”? His longest are no longer than, say, Chopin’s 24 Préludes and his longest continuous one, Fantasia Contrappuntistica, plays for barely half an hour whereas Sorabji’s longer works for the instrument can do so for anything from an hour up to more than nine, so the comparison seems to be rather less than meaningful.

    “You can access the score of this sonata by clicking Sorabji Piano Sonata 1”; not legally, since no permission for its uploading to YouTube has been granted.

    “buy his own admission” should read “by his own admission”.

    “he himself played his own Opus Clavicembalisticum in public a few times”; he did so once only, on 1 December 1930 in the then Stevenson Hall in Glasgow, Scotland.

    “Pianist Tellef Johnson, a name completely unknown to me, made a recording of Sorabji’s longer Second Piano Sonata in 1999 for Altarus but it is completely unavailable either for purchase or streaming”. On what evidence do you base this unavailability? Have you sourced it from Altarus Records itself and have you tried http://www.recordsinternational.com ?

    “It’s a shame that Sorabji’s piano sonatas are not available on CDs in good, complete performances except for Nos. 0 and 1”. Not only is there no evidence of the unavailability of Tellef Johnson’s recording of No. 2, It is surprising that not mention is made of Jonathan Powell’s recording of No. 4, a 3-CD box set also from Altarus that has been around for years; this work was premièred in 1930 by the composer at the same venue as he was to première Opus Clavicembalisticum later than year and, at the time of its completion, it was one of his finest.

    We understand that a complete recording of No. 5 in currently in the works but have no more specific detail about its release at this point.

    Information on all of Sorabji’s scores and published literary writings, as well as a discography, Marc-André Roberge’s and Sean Vaughn Owen’s books on the composer and much else besides is to be found on http:\\www.sorabji-archive.co.uk available. All scores and literary writings, including many typeset editions of scores, my be obtained by writing to sorabji.archive@gmail.com .”

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    • I sent you an email on Tuesday when I was ill. You might want to check your Junk or Spam folder. Or better yet, why don’t you write to me, and we can put each other’s email addresses in our contact lists? My email address is on my home page near the bottom. As for the YouTube posting of the Sonata No. 1, just click on the link in my article (in the header, where it says “on YouTube”) and it will take you there.

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