Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Kaikhosru Shapurji SORABJI (1892-1988)
Michael Habermann plays Sorabji: The Legendary Works for Piano

Volume One: Early Works [55:34]
Two Piano Pieces: In the Hothouse (1918) [6:05], Toccata (1920) [3:33]
Fantaisie Espagnole (1919) [15':13]
Valse Fantaisie: Hommage à Johann Strauss (1925) [15:22]
Pastiche: Hindu Merchant's Song (Rimsky-Korsakov) (1922) [4:05]
Pastiche: Habanera from Bizet's Carmen (1922) [4:38]
Pastiche: Chopin's Valse, Op. 64, No. 1 (1922) [4:13]
Michael HABERMANN (b.1950): A la manière de Sorabji: "Au clair de la lune" (August 1972) [1:50]
Volume Two: Nocturnes [71:00]
Le jardin parfumé - Poem for Piano (1923) [19:05]
Nocturne: Djâmî (1928) [22:12]
Gulistan (The Rose Garden) - Nocturne for Piano (1940) [29:32]
Volume Three: Assertive Works [71:16]
Introito and Preludio-Corale from Opus Clavicembalisticum (1929-1930) [13:15]
Prelude, Interlude and Fugue (1920-22) [3:13, 5:44, 6:03]
Fragment for Harold Rutland (1926, rev. 1937) [2:47]
Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell'egregio porta Christopher Grieve ossia Hugh M'Diarmid

(Tiny Little Fantasy on the Illustrious Name of the Distinguished Poet Christopher Grieve, i.e. Hugh M'Diarmid) (1961) [2:37]
"Quære reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora" ("Seek the rest of this matter among the things that are more secret") [1940] [16:49]
St. Bertrand de Comminges: "He was laughing in the tower" (1941) [20:20]
Michael Habermann (piano)
Recordings made 1980-1995 (ADD/DDD)
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS427-429CD [55.34+71.00+71.16]

I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing Michael Habermann’s Sorabji recital on BIS ( and it was a delight to learn about this recording’s existence, then to have all expectations realized on hearing it.

These three discs (attractively priced at three-for-two) include some smaller chips off the workbench as well as major works such as Le jardin parfumé and Gulistan (of which more later). Habermann’s staunch advocacy of this most fascinating yet elusive of composers, as in the case of the BIS disc, is of interest not only to pianomaniacs but also to the general music lover.

It is a good idea to subdivide the product into three sections, one per disc: Early Works; Nocturnes; Assertive Works. Whether it was such a good idea to begin the third volume with a quarter of an hour excerpt from O.C. is more debatable (after all, there is much else that could have been substituted), but this is perhaps the only quibble I have.

The first disc presents recordings from various sources (see the appendix to Rob Barnett’s review of this product for full discographical details: In the Hothouse (1918) prefigures Le jardin parfumé in its sensuous harmonies and Debussian cascades (nice and even in this performance); its partner piece on this disc, the Toccata of two years later (they were published together in 1922 as ‘Two Piano Pieces’), is a listener-friendly romp. Despite the booklet’s assurance that there are ‘jagged rhythms and biting dissonances’, the bite is more of a playful nip and the world of Prokofiev’s famous offering in this form is a long way away. Along with several other performances on this first disc, this was taken from a 1980 MusicMasters LP, recorded in 1979. The analogue recording is remarkably clear and true.

The two Fantaisies that follow both come in around the quarter-of-an-hour mark. Note that the tripartite Fantasie Espagnole (1919) is not to be confused with the Sorabji transcription of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole which Habermann recorded on the above-mentioned BIS disc. The present Fantasie Espagnole owes much to Albéniz, updated into the Sorabjian mould. Languid in aspect, Habermann throws off decorations almost nonchalantly – around 8 minutes in, the figure of Albéniz really starts to kick in. Only a hard touch in the right hand around 10’45 detracts slightly.

The second Fantaisie is subtitled ‘Hommage à Johann Strauss’ and was composed six years later. Habermann gave the world première of this piece in Baltimore in 1982, according to the booklet notes; yet the discographical notes give the present recording, dating from 1984, as the world première. Whichever is the case, this is an enchanting work. Sound clusters may not immediately suggest anything overtly Waltz-King-isch, yet the misty textures evoke, in this instance, warm nostalgia. Even at forte and fortissimo, this is perfumed music. The music opens out as the piece progresses and Straussian elements (initially predominantly rhythmic) become ever more readily identifiable. Sorabji’s favourite device of juxtaposing aggregates makes for exciting listening. All that effort for what sounds like a remarkably small audience …

The contrast of the ensuing three pastiches is marked. All three are brief (around the four minute mark). The pastiche on the ‘Hindu Merchant’s Song’ (also known as the ‘Song of India’ from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko) is serene and beautiful. Again, Habermann gave the world première of this piece in 1980 – the present recording comes from a MusicMasters disc. It would make an ideal point from which to start listening to these discs, especially as Habermann’s sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the melody is so magical.

Habermann’s suggestion, in relation to the Pastiche on Bizet’s Habanera that ‘Carmen’s tobacco factory has moved to the marijuana field’ is both amusing and remarkably accurate. It is quite a silly trifle (‘some find the piece hilarious’, says Habermann) and would make a wonderful encore. It is followed by one of Sorabji’s two arrangements of Chopin’s ‘Minute’ Waltz. This one complements the 1933 Pasticcio capriccioso (on BIS CD1306). The Pastiche, like the Pasticcio capriccioso, shows that there is less of a gap between Sorabji and Chopin, more of a chasm. Listen around the three-minute mark for a characteristically Sorabjian profusion of trills.

A shift in recording quality and image (the piano suddenly appears more distant) for Habermann’s own input into this project. A pastiche of a pastiche-meister may be a risky undertaking – actually, Sorabji responded by dedicating to Habermann the 93-page Golden Cockerel Variations. Habermann’s effort is an affectionate and fun way to end the first part of this trilogy.

Part Two presents ‘Nocturnes’ and begins with the most famous of them, Le jardin parfumé (this piece formed the substance of Habermann’s own doctoral dissertation). Coming in at nearly twenty minutes, this work was inspired by a book written by the Arabian Sheik Nefwazi, around the 1400AD mark. The dynamic level rarely peaks above mezzo-piano throughout and there is little doubt that its sensuous beauty rivals (and maybe outdoes) the headier regions of the French Impressionists. At times, Messiaen lurks in the shadows; at others, Scriabin. But the canvas is Sorabji’s, and it is difficult to imagine a more committed account than this, nor one more beautifully recorded.

The primal octaves that open Djami are eloquent testimony to Habermann’s assertion that, ‘Djami is one of the most ethereal, other-worldly compositions ever written’. Scintillating scales threaten to shoot off the top end of the piano. Even for Sorabji, this is heady and decadent. The piece is a hymn to love in sound – to take one example, the astonishing delicacy around the 18’50 mark carries a very powerful emotive point.

The final Nocturne, Gulistan (‘The Rose Garden’) is heard here recorded at its world première. It is absolutely hypnotic, not to mention cripplingly difficult in its demands. All credit to Habermann for maintaining the atmosphere whilst not drowning the whole in pedal. When Sorabji pares down the textures towards the end the result is heart-stopping. By the way, the poem ‘The Rose Garden’ upon which this is based is available for viewing on the web at

The third disc contrasts significantly. The granitic ‘Introito’ and ‘Preludio-Corale’ from Opus Clavicembalisticum perhaps does not begin as impressively as in Jonathan Powell’s hands at the Purcell Room recently ( – one just does not get the same impression of being in the presence of a vast edifice. Interestingly, Habermann asserts that Sorabji ‘composed even larger works that still remain unpublished’. The mind boggles …

The opening section of the Prelude, Interlude and Fugue is the kind of running passage-work that Sorabji writes like nobody else. In effect, the flow of notes could go on forever. Some hiss is evident on the analogue recording (1984). The interlude is static and delicate, yet not perfumed this time, perhaps in accordance with the more ‘serious’ form in use. The Fugue sounds almost jolly to begin with, but (no surprise) gets more concentrated later on.

Two much smaller pieces provide relief. The Fragment for Harold Rutland seems to make passing reference to slow, late-night jazz; the Fantasietta sul nome illustre dell’egregio poeta Christopher Grieve ossia Hugh M’Diarmid (the title takes almost longer to type than the piece takes to listen to!) is, as Habermann quite rightly states, Sorabji’s world in miniature. It exudes a patently mysterious aura.

Quaere reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora (‘Seek the rest of this matter among the things that are more secret’) is shifting and restless, reminiscent on more than one occasion of late Liszt piano pieces. It has the manner of a fragment. There is a strange shift in recording perspective at 1’36. Nevertheless, this performance is quite an achievement in its almost unremitting bleakness, presenting a most disturbing musical experience.

Finally, St. Bertrand de Comminges: "He was laughing in the tower" is another work with bleak aspect. Based on a ghost story, it does get animated, but the concentration remains forever dark. The textures at around 12’00 become tremendously disembodied. This is a haunting (pardon the pun) and impressive way to close a major survey of the piano music of Sorabji.

This set is certainly one to return to frequently. The works all repay frequent rehearings.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Rob Barnett


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