Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on October 1, 2004
October 2004 – Part 1 of 2 [Part 2]
SHOSTAKOVICH: Adagio Fragment of 1934; Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 43; Five Fragments for Orchestra, Op. 42; Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141/Rostropovich in Conversation with Jon Tolansky – Mstislav Rostropovich conducts London Symphony Orchestra – Andante AN 4090 72:41; 61:41; 49:04 (Distrib. Naxos) ****:
Essentially, the two discs containing music in this fine set derive from the 1998 season of the London Symphony at the Barbican Centre, with guest conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. The interview with Jon Tolansky dates from January 2002, and it covers the breadth of Rostropovich’s career, from his first callings in music – at the keyboard and then the cello – through his studies with Shostakovich, to his intercession in Soviet politics as recently as 1970 to try to ease the grip of the repressive regime on various composers. The recollections of friends and colleagues Vaclav Talich, Benjamin Britten, Dimiti Shostakovich, and Serge PROKOFIEV form only a part of the fascinating and often courageous aspects of the Rostropovich legacy, captured for his 75th birthday.
Mstislav Rostropovich has enjoyed a profoundly fruitful relationship with the LSO since 1965, when he and conductor Rozhdestvensky presented a marathon cello festival of 31 concertos. As a conductor of the LSO, Rostropovich comments upon its warmth of response and individual virtuosity of its players. The extreme range of dynamics of which the orchestra is capable is evident in the two sets of Fragments by Shostakovich, the first a treatment for his C Minor Symphony, the other, his Op. 42, a set in the mode of Schoenberg and Berg, slight but pungent, aphoristic pieces that condense highly emotional material into a few minutes&Mac226; worth of music. The C Minor Symphony, one of the darker opera of Shostakovich (1936), has open obligations to Mahler and perhaps to the quiet, adagio ending of the Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony. Its reception among the Soviet authorities was cold, suffering the denunciation of formalism in music. The Fifteenth Symphony (1971) is the artistic credo of an ailing composer, beset with intimations of mortality. The music alternates between witty allusion–Glinka, Wagner, Rossini– and tragic depth, skittish good humor and pained echoes of nostalgia we might ordinarily attribute to the music of Rachmaninov. The performances are incandescent, the audience responses virtually apoplectic. Along with brilliant liner notes and wonderful photos, the whole Andante presentation is in the best tradition of taste and authority.
BACH: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988/SMALL: 25 Preludes – Haskell Small, piano – 4Tay 4028 79:09 (Distrib. Jamesarts.com)***:
Haskell Small is both pianist and composer, a student of Leon Fleisher and William Masselos in keyboard and Vincent Persichetti in composition, certainly powerful, musical pedigree. Small inscribed his traversal of the Bach Goldberg Variations in March, 2003; his own preludes derive from sessions at Rutgers in May, 1986, prior issued on the Northeastern Records label. Mr. Small sports a fine technique, and he handles the Goldberg’s with aplomb and digital finesse. He keeps the repeats minimal, which allows him to complement Bach with own preludes from 1985. Small has no problem executing the virtuoso aspects of the writing nor articulating the varied lines of the canons at the ever-increasing intervals at the third of each thematic group. That Small appreciates the artful complexity of Bach’s work is evidenced by his own liner notes and his intelligent, lucid playing.
Small’s own preludes follow Chopin’s example of working the circle of fifths, using his opening prelude as a template of block chords from which the others, in all the major and minor keys, derive their initial impetus. Set in three groups of five, two sets of three, and a final set of three, Small makes the third of each group jazzy, a kind of meditation on Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. The fifth prelude in each set extends the opening block chords and their harmonic-rhythmic possibilities. I find the writing idiomatic and attractive, though without any special character; rather, an amalgam of styles that ranges from Debussy’s glistening water-pieces to stride and blues riffs that might owe something to Eubie Blake. This is a smart musician playing smart music, but only the experimental few will likely give it a try.
SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. Posth., D. 960; 4 Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899 – Juana Zayas, piano – Music & Arts CD-1139 71:33 (Distrib. Albany)****:
Having been unfamiliar with the playing of Cuban virtuoso Juana Zayas, I had no prejudices when I auditioned yet another traversal of Schubert’s last sonata (1828) and his popular 1827 set of impromptus. Both facile and intimate, these are masterful renditions that seem tailor-made for the salon experience, those contemporary Schubertiads that persist among music lovers. Zayas pays particular attention to the number of Schubert’s pianissimo indications to a remarkable degree,and she can speed up in gradations of fluid tempo without increasing dynamic pressure.
Those raised on the heaven-storming renditions a la Richter will find in Zayas more of Schnabel’s tender spirit. In fact, I cannot recall hearing such an Apollinian approach, especially to the long, singing figures in the last movement, since I heard Lorin Hollander play this great work at SUNY Binghamton back in 1971. The Impromptus balance the lyrical elements and the sense of an evolving form, an improvised engagement between player and instrument, this a Hamburg Steinway captured in 2002. Piano sound reproduction is quite strong, with none of the obtrusive ping I often find in piano recordings. Good midrange, quite poignant in the ‘cello’ melody of the A-flat Impromptu. The C Minor has an especial lilt that may sell the disc by itself. While I am not going to abandon my Artur Schnabel, Eduard Erdmann, or Edwin Fischer versions of these works, I am going to recommend Zayas as a sensitive, conscientious artist of first rank.
SMETANA: String Quartet in E Minor “From My Life”; String Quartet in D Minor/FIBICH: String Quartet in A Major – Talich String Quartet – Calliope CAL 9332, 68:21 ****:
I am naturally biased in favor of any group that takes the name of Talich; in this case, first violinist Jan Talich pays homage to his great-uncle, conductor Vaclav. Recorded January, 2003, these are fierce and passionate readings of the well-familiar From My Life Quartet (1876) and its somewhat neglected companion piece in D Minor of 1883. The latter reveals debts to Beethoven, not only in its sad concessions to the composer’s respective deafness, but with allusions from Beethoven’s Op. 130. Both quartets are rife with Bohemian dance rhythms in fugal treatment, bits of Czech song and liturgical doxology, and plaintive, often anguished intervals on the open strings. The lushness of tone that characterizes the Talich ensemble adds an especial luster to the proceedings, which are rounded and brisk, pointed and tender, at once. The A Major Quartet (1874) by Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900) might have been condemned by the composer as unworthy of his official catalogue, but it was rediscovered in 1928. A contemporary of Dvorak and ardent nationalist, Fibich utilizes a Czech sousedska in various combinations, along with a third-movement polka that imitates the Czech bagpipe. The second movement plays like a lullaby, the fourth like a chorale. No less significant in these glossy, plastic inscriptions is the quality of the musicians&Mac226; instruments, vintage pieces from 1694-1780, by the families Gagliano, Rugger, and Guadanini. Class acts all the way.
DVORAK: Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104; Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5; Slavonic Dance in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 2; Humoresque in G-flat, Op. 101, No. 7; Songs My Mother Taught Me, Op. 55, No. 4 – Yo-Yo Ma, cello/Itzhak Perlman, violin (Opp. 72, 101)/Patricia Zander, piano (Op. 55)/Kurt Masur conducts New York Philharmonic/Seiji Ozawa conducts Boston Symphony (Opp. 58, 72, 101) – Sony Classical SK 92858 58:40 ****:
A compilation of Yo-Yo Ma’s Dvorak inscriptions, 1981-1995, this tender, rather syrupy album will glean affection from those already aficionados of Ma’s incisive, driven style, and those prone to the lushly sentimental approach of the arrangements for cello and violin expressly made for the Ma-Perlman duo. The 1995 Cello Concerto with Masur does not require any form of apology, however, being cast in the determined, streamlined style that Casals and Szell set in the 1930’s as a kind of archetype, with minimal sentiment and no exaggerated rhetoric of execution. So, too, Silent Woods enjoys all kinds of moody evocations without traipsing through overly maudlin slush. The two cuts with Perlman, on the other hand, have a kind of three tenors aura, only now it’s one tenor and one baritone in Oskar Morawetz transcription, each trying to out-Mario Lanza the other. Of course, the transcendent melodies of Dvorak likewise can suffer no evil fate. There are no liner notes nor commentary, only the alternately plaintive and over-ripe sounds of great musical artistry, set on the verge of popular taste.
BEETHOVEN: Complete Music for Piano and Cello – András Schiff, piano; Miklos Perényi, cello – ECM New Series 1819/20 (2 discs), 2:31:19 ****:
My first thought upon seeing this new set was Why do we need another version when we have the classic one by Pablo Casals and Rudolf Serkin? So I got out that old Columbia mono reissue and did some A/B-ing. Well, I still think Casals’ l930s recording of the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites is one of the greatest recordings in history, but I’m ready to retire his Beethoven Cello Sonatas in favor of Schiff and Perenyi. Schiff’s previous piano recordings for ECM have been very special – not just another version of the repertory but a fresh and deeply involved reinterpretation. That goes for this superb set, which by the way includes one sonata missed by Casals and company – the little-known one in F Major Op. 17 of 1800, which was originally conceived for the same hunting horn virtuoso for whom Mozart had composed his four horn concertos.
In addition to the five other piano-cello sonatas, ranging from the earliest Op. 5 to the latest Op. 102, the set boasts two sets of variations on songs from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The glorious singing tone of Perényi is quite a contrast to the roughhewn sound of Casals, though I realize part of this is due to the more primitive recording equipment of the time. But details such as Perenyi’s smooth phrasing vs. Casals often stop-and-go approach show that the differences aren’t all due to the sonic qualities. Also, Casals – though nothing like Glenn Gould and Toscanini – was prone to some distracting vocal sounds that come thru even the lower-resolution mono recordings. The older recordings were miced more closely and this exacerbates the sounds as well as the less-than-smooth aspects of playing. The piano also sounds a bit tinny and thumpy. The stereo stage is set further away on the ECM recordings but with a greatly improved realism, separation of the two instruments and more accurate reproduction of the timbres of both of them. The only thing that could improve on this release is if it became part of the planned SACD reissue of ECM titles that is just starting now.
– John Sunier
1920 Yearbook of the 20th Century Piano – Maurizio Baglini, Fazioli piano. MILHAUD: 5 Saudades do Brasil, SHOSTAKOVICH: 5 Preludes; SUK: Friendship, COPLAND: Scherzo humoristique, NOVAK: 8 pieces from Mladi, CASELLA: 11 Pezzi infantilli, VILLA-LOBOS: A lenda do caboclo, 8 COMPOSERS: Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy, RAVEL: La Valse, KOECHLIN: Pastorales – Frame Records, Italy CD FRO348-2 (2 discs: 64:09, 65:32) ****:
This is the third release in a clever series originated by record producer Paolo Paolini. The idea is to put a sonic magnifying glass on a single year of history via compositions for the piano. The previous years were l900 and l950; I don’t know if the same pianist was involved or not, but he is a superb interpreter of the music. There is an essay on all the selections and their importance at the time, and another essay on the general history of 1920. The selections are wildly varied and clearly show some of the differing musical trends of the period. I had heard excerpts from the Tombeau de Debussy, but had never heard the entire eight-movement suite, which had contributions from Dukas, Roussel, Malipiero, Goossens, Bartok, Falla, Schmitt and Stravinsky. This is a foldout cardboard alternative to the jewelbox for two discs, and beautifully illustrated and presented. The Fazioli Piano Company was involved in the production; their grands are right up there with the Bosendorfers as the Roll-Royces of piano sound.
– John Sunier
LEONARD BERNSTEIN: Mass – Jerry Hadley, tenor/Soloists of the Pacific Mozart Ensemble/Radio Choir Berlin/State and Cathedral Choir Berlin/Deutsches Symphony Orchestra Berlin/Kent Nagano – Harmonia mundi HMC 901840.41 (2 discs, 1 hr. 46 min. ****:
Bernstein’s theater piece was composed in memory of John Kennedy and premiered in l971. It elicited considerable negative discussion from some conservative voices in liturgical music for its alleged sacrilegious slant. The libretto mixes texts by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz with parts of the Roman Catholic Mass – which Jewish Bernstein found especially theatrical. The “Celebrant” (Jerry Hadley) faith is strong and pure at the beginning, but beset by corruption, misuse of power and human misery he questions his faith. Though nearly renouncing it, at the end he joins other believers in praise of God. The work is indeed extremely theatrical and mixes classical, rock, pop and Broadway – used such forces (in addition to a large orchestra) as a marching band, mixed chorus, children’s chorus, dancers and a rock band. In some ways it is redolent of the 60s but in others it retains a very up-to-date take on the place of spirituality in our society today.
This is the first complete recording of the work since Bernstein’s original for Columbia shortly after the premiere. That one was a unique experience both in its original LP form (I believe it was in SQ quad) as well as its later CD reissue. But it takes a back seat to Nagano’s even brighter and brasher treatment of the work. There is a special enthusiasm felt in the new recording that even tops that of the Bernstein-conducted original. Grammy-winner Hadley is perfect in his role. Recorded in connection with live performances in Berlin, the effect of this very American work on the German audiences seems to have been some powerful catnip to all concerned. Again, this would be a very suitable work for multichannel reproduction, and perhaps HM will eventually release it as such. A video of the performance wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
– John Sunier
Continuing in the same general spiritual vein, we have now two more CDs in the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music…
The Genesis Suite (1945) – A Musical Collaboration by SCHOENBERG, TANSMAN, MILHAUD, CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO, TOCH, STRAVINSKY, & NATHANIEL SHILKRET – Five narrators/Ernst Senff Choir/Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./Gerard Schwarz – Naxos 8.559442, 55:38 ****:
This highly unusual suite came about in a highly unusual manner that involved connections between the Hollywood film industry and the emigre community in Los Angeles. The latter had grown due the area offering a safe haven for many European composers and film directors during WWII. It gave each of these seven composers an opportunity to create a single movement on a portion of the Genesis story in the Bible. It was then premiered by the Janssen Symphony of LA with several speakers delivering the Biblical words with each movement. The seven composers worked in complete independence – unaware of what the others were doing. The themes of exile and destruction found in several of the Genesis stories must have resonated with these composers who were forced by WWII to leave their homelands and culture for the safety and promise of the New World. The liner notes speak of “seven famous composers;” well, six would be more to the point: that last fellow Shilkret is the same Nat Shilkret whose version of Ravel’s Bolero is on the compilation reviewed above. He had the original idea for the Suite and he organized it; he was director of “light music” at RCA Victor. He may have been slightly famous then, but not now.
An early Capitol LP reissued some of the Genesis Suite from the original 78s made at the time of its premiere, without the narration, and with very poor sound. Only Stravinsky and Schoenberg kept copies of their scores and it was thought the other five sections were lost forever. The whole idea of the work has long interested me and it’s wonderful to have it fully restored with all the missing sections and given its first modern recording here under Gerard Schwarz’ baton. Critics at the time were taken aback to find Schoenberg and Stravinsky cheek by jowl (rehearsals had to be set up so the two “arch enemies” would not meet), but the opening Prelude by the first and the closing portrayal of the Tower of Babel by the second are not really far apart musically. What is a bit of a jerk is going from the conclusion of Schoenberg’s Prelude with its serious double fugue to Nat Shilkret’s sci-fi movie music which opens his piece, Creation. Milhaud uses effective musical stingers for the story of discord and violence inherent in his section, Cain and Abel. Stravinsky was the big name here so he got the big finish of the suite – Babel. He insisted there be no narration during the musical depiction of the building and final destruction of the tower. A fascinating and audacious if uneven work. The note booklet essay describes in detail the story of another creation – that of this quirky work itself.
– John Sunier
Jewish Tone Poems = AARON AVSHALOMOV: Four Biblical Tableaux (1928); SHEILA SILVER: Shirat Sara (1985); JAN MEYEROWITZ: Symphony “Midrash Esther” (1954) – 1) Berlin Radio Sym./Gerard Schwarz, 2) Seattle Sym./Gerard Schwarz, 3) Berlin Radio Sym./Yoel Levi – Naxos 8.559426, 63:19 ****:
All three of these are world premiere recordings of orchestral tone poems. Avshalomov was born in Siberia, spent three years in Portland Oregon, but lived most of his life in China. He had little musical training but turned out orchestral works in the Rimsky-Korsakov colorful style while often quoting elements of Chinese music. His Tableaux were commissioned for the dedication of Temple Beth Israel in Portland. In addition to Chinese music, Avshalomov loves the music of transplanted Oregonian Ernest Bloch and some of his style is heard in the Tableaux. The four short movements are: Queen Esther’s Prayer, Rebecca by the Well, Ruth and Naomi, Processional. Sheila Silver began her symphony for strings titled Shirat Sara (Song of Sarah) while living for a time in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Genesis story of the wife of Abraham is told in three movements, and threads of a quasi-Hassidic tune are heard thruout.
The Midrash Esther Symphony is from a composer who did not learn he was a Jew until he was 18 – his family having converted to Christianity prior to his birth. The major work – with eight and nine-minute-long movements – was originally premiered by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. His music is conservative and covered a wide range of subjects including both Christian and Hebrew liturgies. The symphony comments on the Book of Esther – the threatened genocide of the Jews in Persia and their eventual reprieve and victory over the tormentors. It is in four movements – the first on the danger to the Jews, the second deals with rage and hatred of the Persians, the third represents Esther’s heroic poise, and the finale is titled Purim – the festival celebrating the averting of the catastrophe. Leave it to Naxos and the Milkin Archive to again bring previously unheard music to us in a quality presentation and at bargain price.
– John Sunier
Two less-than-serious harpsichord CDs from the same source…
Spirituals and Rags: Jazz Harpsichord – Audley Green – AFKA Records SK-440 ****:
Yes Indeed! – Don Angle, harpsichord – AFKA Records SK-560 ****:
Australian native Ms. Green studied with a pupil of Wanda Landowska and is well-known for solo harpsichord recitals. She decided to use her European Baroque instrument to sing the spirituals and freedom songs of the Black diaspora. Her recital opens with Swing Low Sweet Chariot and three other spirituals, moves into a Scott Joplin and three other rags, a suite by Mary Mageau titled “Ragtime Remembered,” two Dave Brubeck works including Blue Rondo a la Turk, and ends with Joe Utterback’s four-movement suite, “Excursions in Jazz Styles for Harpsichord.” A delight from start to finish – Bravo, Ms. Green!
Don Angle builds harpsichords for a maker in Boston, but he doesn’t try them out with the Goldberg Variations. No, instead he plays what the liner note writer dubs “an emancipated harpsichord.” It’s not the first time the Baroque instrument went to town like this, but the sheer variety and audacity of the 18 tunes herein boggle the mind. Angle is also responsible for all the arrangements. Sound on both these CDs is excellent, without being so close you hear all the instrument’s action noises. As a sometime harpsichordist myself (I briefly had a jazz harpsichord trio in college) I find the inner voices of fast-moving passages and overfat chords can be heard so much more clearly on the harpsichord than a piano, and Angle makes full use of that fact. I need say no more other than here’s the program: Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, Old Folks at Home, Tiptoe Thru the Tulips, Angleterre, In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree, St. Louis Blues, Crazy Arms, Stayin’ Alive, In the Heat of the Night, Boogie, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise, No Place Like Home, I’ll Fly Away, Do Lord, Yes Indeed!, Speak Softly Love, Time to Go, Stars and Stripes Forever.
– John Sunier
BACH – Lieder Without Words (Transcriptions for Oboe and Orchestra) – Albrecht Mayer, oboe & leader/Sinfonia Varsovia – DGG 476047-2, 59:09 ****:
Another album in the classical crossover bailiwick that shows some good thinking and should reach some listeners who would never think of picking up a CD of oboe solo with orchestra. There’s no dumbing-down here, these are legitimate transcriptions of sixteen very short Bach melodies and excerpts. The choices, the singing tone of Mayer’s oboe, the fine arrangements and the order of selections couldn’t be better. Violinist Nigel Kennedy joins Mayer for a duet on an aria from the St. Matthew Passion. Other selections come from the Clavier works, from cantatas, and from two of the harpsichord concertos. Most enjoyable and most heartily recommended.
– John Sunier
Ondes Martenot – Works by MESSIAEN, MARTINU, BLOCH, COOPER, REDOLFI, ROLIN, TOUCHARD, WISSON – Thomas Bloch, Ondes martenot/various players – Naxos 8.555779, 73:47 ****:
Since the Ondes is a sort of Theremin with a keyboard for better control instead of just flailing ones hands in the air, it is often described as a descendent of Leon Theremin’s invention of 1928. It wasn’t – the Ondes was invented by Monsieur Martenot in l919. But is based on the same idea of a special audio circuit causing a whistle in an attached speaker and the electronic tones being controlled to play music. There are seven different wave forms which may be selected. While the right hand plays the keyboard the left controls a knob for the sound level. French musician Bloch is a specialist in performing on rare instruments – in addition to this one he also plays glass harmonica (and thus was heard on the soundtrack of Amadeus) and cristal glass Baschet as well. The 16 tracks encompass Martenot and piano, Martenot and synthesizer, Martenot with vocals and other electronics, and Martenot plus flute and soprano sax, as well as a standard orchestra. Messiaen is the best-known composer for the instrument, but it has many possibilities which are explored in different ways by the other composers in this collection. Martinu’s Fantasie was originally written for the Theremin, but was found too difficult to perform accurately on that instrument, whereas the Ondes was a perfect match. One of the works presented is performer Bloch’s own and it is for nine Ondes. Lindsay Cooper’s Nightmare conjures up its title very well using three voices, synth and various percussion. 85 years may have passed since this offbeat instrument first appeared, but composers are still discovering new ways to include it in their works – this collection samples some of them.
– John Sunier
SIGISMOND STOJOWSKI = Music for Piano – Deux Pensées musicales, Deux Orientales, from Quatre Morceaux, Fantasie Op.38, from Aspirations, Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme – Jonathan Plowright, piano – Hyperion CDA67437, 77:42 ****:
The producers at Hyperion seem to have done more than any other label – even Naxos – to bring unknown but worthwhile piano music to today’s ears. Their Romantic Piano Concerto series just goes on and on, their complete Liszt series has been well-received, and here is yet another forgotten composer who is well worth hearing. Polish composer Stojowski lived until 1946 and like many other Poles in music, was educated in France. He moved to New York and was head of the piano department at the music school which eventually became Julliard.He gave recitals in Europe and the Americas and was the first Polish composer to have an entire program of his music played by the New York Philharmonic. He was also an important musical pedagogue and writer on both music and Polish history. He was lifelong friends with composer-pianist Josef Hoffman.
Stojowski’s late-Romantic style has rich lyricism and is chromatically complex, with occasional influences of Impressionism. The Two Musical Thoughts were very popular in the late 1800s for their romantic melodies and lovely harmonies. The composer even recorded an Ampico piano role of one of them. The Chant d’amour from Stojowski’s Quatre Morceaux was his big hit in America – Paderewski frequently performed the piece, described as having ravishing melodies and thrilling harmony. Fantasie is one of his few works that would not be regarded as a miniature form. At 14 minutes it actually doesn’t display an improvisatory style, but is a carefully constructed form involving two main sections and transforming one of the themes into a complex three-voice fugue.
The four selections from Aspirations show a strong impressionistic bent, often approaching the whole-tone harmonies of Debussy. Some of these selections refer to Stojowski’s fascination with musical vibrations of color and light. (Interesting that in his photo he looks very much like Alexander Scriabin, who was into exactly the same thing.) The final Variations on the disc are 22 minutes length and the most daring of the selected works. His mastering of counterpoint and fugue comes to the fore in this set of ten variations on an original theme. Pianist Plowright plows right thru (sorry…) the technical challenges of the music, and Hyperion engineer Tony Faulkner delivers his usual clean and uncolored piano sound with a fairly normal-sized, non-streched-out grand on the soundstage.
– John Sunier
SORABJI: Piano Sonata No. 4 – Jonathan Powell, piano – Altarus AIR-CD-9069 (3) 47:44; 35:46; 55:54 **1/2:
Along with this CD set from Altarus was attached a note from editor John Sunier: “I think you can say more intelligent things about this than I can.” While I appreciate John’s faith in my powers of explication (and musical tolerance), I cannot be persuaded that I am a Sorabji (1892-1988) acolyte, although I can understand his historical influences and pretensions. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji composed his Fourth Sonata in 1928 while on an Italian-Sicilian tour with his mother. For the first time in his piano oeuvre, which began in 1917, Sorabji subdivided his piece in to movements, the first three sonatas having been massively long, one-movement structures on the order of Scriabin and Szymanowski by way of Bruckner. His major claim to fame appears to be a huge piece called Opus clavicembalisticum, which the composer performed in 1930; if the title is any indication, I assume Busoni’s Fantasia contrapuntistica to be its spiritual father. More urbane ears than mine will claim late Beethoven, Alkan, and Ravel as kindly antecedents.
Sorabji’s music has found two adherents in pianists Douglas Madge and Jonathan Powell, British pianists with plenty of fingers and nothing better to do, since the aforementioned Opus clavicembalisticum takes over four hours to perform. Some years ago, I reviewed the piano music of Gurdieff, which I found acceptably brief in its few incursions into melody with a modicum of harmonic invention. But slugging it out with Sorabji’s percussive outer movements and its Hindemith-like harmony and its long sequence-chains of arpeggiated Lento, ostensibly a Lisztian evocation of Count Tasca’s Garden near the road to Palermo, is another fray entirely. The last movement contains a double fugue and harmonic procedures indicative of the Second Viennese School. What I get is a sense of the composer’s sheer musical erudition at the expense of alluring musical invention. That the music is contrapuntal, complex, metrically challenging, digitally tasking, and just plain long-winded doe! s nothing to make it sound pretty. I hear the same kind of aesthetic at work that daunts Busoni’s ambitious keyboard pieces and keeps most of us from rehearing the Boulez sonatas. The rather extensive liner notes make all kinds of concessions to Sorabji as an advocate of Italian bel canto; but as I recall, when the Italians and Sicilians really don’t like what they hear, they say it smells of sulphur.