SORABJI: Sequentia Cyclica, Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis / Jonathan Powell, pno / Piano Classics PCL 10206, also available for free streaming on YouTube starting HERE
Many classical listeners have heard of, even if they’ve never heard it, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s five-hour-long Opus Clavicembalisticum, which has been recorded twice (once by John Ogdon and again by Geoffrey Douglas Madge), but that piece almost seems like a curtain-raiser for this one. The Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae, composed in 1948-49, is given a performance here that lasts eight hours and 11 minutes. Needless to say, this is its first recording.
Whereas Sorabji himself performed the Opus Clavicembalisticum only once in December 1930, and Ogden both performed it (1959) and recorded it (1985-86) while the composer was still alive, the Sequentia Cyclica was apparently neither performed nor recorded until after Sorabji’s death in 1988. According to the Sorabji Archive, its first public performance, an incomplete one, took place at Bohannon Hall in the University of Minnesota on April 8, 1999 by pianist Justin Rubin. Its next performance was given by the pianist on this recording, Jonathan Powell, another incomplete performance (only the Theme and sections i-xiii) at the offices of Bauer & Hieber, 48 Great Marlborough Street, London on December 18, 2008. Seven more performances by Powell were given, only three of them complete, on September 18, 2014 in the Netherlands, November 1, 2010 at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and again a week later at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. The only other public performance of any part of this massive work was Part xix, “Quasi Debussy,” by Florian Steiniger at the Kulturzentrum Tempel, Musentempel, Karlsruhe, Germany on April 19, 2015. Powell also gave an incomplete broadcast of the work for Netherlands Radio on May 6, 2013, which was rebroadcast by them a week later.
Needless to say, this is an extraordinarily long, dense work. Sorabji, a largely self-taught pianist, never could play his own music with the huge technique required for his works, and apparently he neither planned nor performed Sequentia Cyclica himself. I’ve heard his rare 1962 home recording of his own Gulistan on YouTube and can attest that he missed several notes, but his point in making the recording was that he knew “how it was supposed to go” and wanted to illustrate that his music should have shape, form and tone color no matter how complex the written passages were. This he was certainly able to do.
For most classical listeners, particularly those whose attention spans can just barely encompass a Beethoven Symphony, Sorabji is a pretentious windbag who wrote, like his predecessor Alkan, a “charnel-house of notes,” but for the majority of cultured and informed listeners, including many pianists for whom his works are beyond their grasp either because of not enough time for preparation or lack of interest in performances, he was a transcendent genius. I place him somewhere between these polar opposites. Taking his works one movement at a time, there are certainly places where he over-wrote, yet the music holds together surprisingly well and often casts a hypnotic spell on the listener. For Sorabji, with his Indian heritage which he clung to tenaciously despite having been born in Great Britain, music was as much an expression of mood and color as it was of structure. Just as most Indian ragas are meant to be repetitive and hypnotic in quality, he transferred this aesthetic to the world of Western classical piano music, creating a strange hybrid that is still not fully understood because of its length and its dearth of live performances and recordings.
The Sorabji Archive lists this work as taking approximately 430 minutes. On this first recording of the work, Powell takes 491. The printed score is also massive, 335 pages long, exceeding the Opus Clavicembalisticum by 85 pages. In his very fulsome liner notes, Powell gives the newcomer to this cycle a guide to its various parts, including a description of Sorabji’s dynamics markings and the required, one might say the correct, manner of phrasing. Herewith an example, his description of Variation 3:
Although generally relaxed in tone, this short variation has considerable expressive range and is punctuated by a series of dramatic outbursts over a gently undulating landscape. At the opening (in D flat major), patterns of four, five, six and seven semiquavers in the right hand, continually hinting at the outlines of the chant, are pitted against triplets in the left hand which pick out longer melodies. As the tessitura widens towards the extremities of the keyboard, a stark chord of D major in first inversion (at 2:14) heralds a new section in which rhetorical material alternates with brief re-statements of the opening (at 2:40, 3:04 and 3:18) before descending to a statement of the incipit of the theme in low trills. There follows a luxuriant development of the opening material (from 3:42) that hints at the nocturnal music of variations 10, 13 and 14. At 5:25 a final interruption occurs, this time with the theme superimposed on a rhythmic quasi trillo (recalling the opening of Sorabji’s Tāntrik Symphony), which builds to another D major-type chord at 5:58 (with added tritone in the treble) and a series of chords in dotted rhythms. The drama has burnt itself out by 6:21, where a low sustained D in the left hand acts as an anchor to waves of chords that fan out towards the top of the piano. At 7:00 the original material returns, transfigured, before a descent to the final Amen.
And here is his description of Variation 5:
Marked ardito, focosamente, this is the first of five variations (the others being Nos. 9, 12, 18 and 23) that treat the material in a rhapsodic, often energetically virtuosic manner (Variation 12 slightly less so). The roots of this style of writing in Sorabji’s work may be found in his early Sonata No.1 (1919); later examples include the often huge opening movements of his piano symphonies labelled Intrecciata (Italian for ‘plait’ or inter-weaving)19 which combine sometimes large numbers of themes in a freewheeling manner. Variation No.5 is split into two halves. The first is rhetorical and broadly consists of four sections, each of which is introduced by the arresting opening gesture (or a variant of it): a group of fast chords which hurl towards a final, accented one (at 0:01, 1:03, 2:01 and 3:43). The second half starts at 4:28 and is initially reflective. Sorabji gradually increases the degree of complexity in metre and dissonance of harmony until he starts to re-introduce elements of the first part until, starting at 7:47, there are no fewer than five iterations of the opening motif during the remaining 30 seconds of music.
As you can see, then, this is extraordinarily detailed music calling for, as Sorabji so often did, a sensitive musical instinct beyond the actual written notes. I can scarcely compete with Powell, since I have no access to the full score and it would easily take me several months to read and analyze it nearly as well as he, therefore I shall refrain from a technical description of what is going on and instead attempt descriptions of moods as the pieces go by my ears.
Powell clearly has the mood and color of Sorabji down pat from the opening of the Theme. Sorabji’s two favorite pianists—neither one of whom played a note of his music in pubic—were Egon Petri and Alfred Cortot, and both were noted for their rich, deep-in-the-keys sound (particularly the latter). Cortot, in his prime, had a pretty decent technique, which deteriorated somewhat by the early 1950s, but extant recordings show that Petri was also a super-virtuoso in a class with Cziffra, Raymond Lewenthal or, among today’s pianists, Marc-André Hamelin. And believe me, as this cycle continues, super-virtuosity becomes important. Immediately after the theme we get a “Vivace” that calls for almost superhuman digital dexterity, and here Powell is also up to the task. Indeed, upon hearing this early section, I realized why the timing of Powell’s performance exceeds that of the estimated time. By playing the music slightly slower, he is able to bring out the structure by articulating each passage clearly. Sorabji packed so many notes into every phrase and bar that sometimes the ear fails to “catch up” with the music unless the pianist’s articulation is crystal clear.
The third variation, titled “Legato, soave e liscio,” is one of the most beautiful things Sorabji ever wrote, albeit beautiful in a modern way. The notes fall across each other as they unravel at the keyboard like falling leaves from a tree or petals from a flower. It’s when you come up to No. IV, “Tranquillo e piano,” that you really run up against Sorabji’s thorniness: part 1 lasts nearly an hour (50:27) while part 2 runs another 14:18. Holy Samolians! Yet once again, the thematic development is clear and, since the music runs rather slowly, not difficult to follow.
The fifth variation, “Ardito, focosamente” (“Bold, fiery”) is one of the thorniest—see Powell’s notes on this section above. One of the more interesting, and somewhat charming, variations is No. VIII, marked “Tempo di Valzer con molta fantasia,” where Sorabji uncharacteristically uses 3/4 time. Variation IX, marked “Capriccioso,” is one of his most imaginative and fantastic creations, while Variation X, “Il tutto in una sonorità piena, dolce, morbida,” takes us to the polar opposite mood, sounding almost like a celesta in certain sections. Oddly, the way Powell plays Variation XI, “Vivace e secco,” it almost has a jazz swagger to the rhythm, though Sorabji hated jazz. Variation XII, “Leggiero a capriccio,” also has a strong syncopated swagger about it.
In Variation XIII, the music is rather fragmented, emerging almost as an allusion to the theme than a recognizable variation on it; the music seems to get lost in its own ruminations. After the very long and soft Variation XIV, the 15th variation surprises one with its Latin beat (it is titled “Hispanica”), while Variation XVIII is angry and energetic. My own theory about Sorabji and the creation of his music stems from three things: firstly, of course, his fascination with classical music, to which he was drawn like a moth to a flame; secondly, his long and bitter arguments with his father which, like those of Hector Berlioz, were never quite resolved; and thirdly, his hyper-sensitivity about being both a homosexual and a foreigner, a “stranger in a strange land.” I honestly believe that it was partly to spite his father that he rejected his given name, but in a way it probably hurt his mother even more…after all, she was British. Yet he obstinately changed his name to Kaikhosru Shapurji to make himself as different as he could, then locked himself away in his own mind, spinning out these fantastic, over-lengthy piano works for the rest of his life partly in spite. He wanted to show the world what a great genius he was, and what better way than to out-write every other composer on the face of the earth? All of the notes in his music aside, these gargantuan monologues were his form of self-therapy to align himself with the highest form of art, an art so pure that he even banned performances of it for 40 years, just to show the world what a genius they were maligning. The amazing thing about his music is that it lacks self-pity, but that was because he considered himself superior to everyone else, not really a victim except for his being gay and his father’s stern opposition, both of which he kept well hidden except from his one or two close friends.
Variation XXI is one of the most harmonically dense and, although in a slow tempo, disguises the theme more completely than in many others. But without question, the most massive “movement” in this cycle is the gargantuan No. XXII, the “Passacaglia with 100 Variations” which, all by itself runs 97 minutes and 38 seconds (it is divided on the CDs into nine bands). Yet throughout this massive structure, Sorabji never repeats himself or writes a superfluous variant. It is a remarkable piece of music. Within this Passacaglia, the most remarkable section is that encompassing Variations 66-75, which opens with extremely irregular, almost clumsy-sounding syncopation, as if Sorabji were lampooning jazz (which he detested). These “clumsy” syncopations pick up again at the 4:30 mark before the music changes back to a regular meter.
One of my favorite variations was No. XXV, titled “Sotto voce, scorrevole,” a really kooky soft, fast and quite short (2:15) piece that was really delightful. The middle section of Variation XXVI moves like a whirlwind, while Variation XXVII –the last one—is the most complex, a series of five fugues which Sorabji built up from two-voice to six-voice, spanning nearly 80 minutes. Boy, I’ll bet this guy was a real hit at parties! Just sit him down at the piano, wind him up, and let him go for three or four hours at a clip!
Throughout this review I haven’t said a word about Powell’s playing style or technique, and that is a compliment. It means that I had no problems with his phrasing or pacing of the score. Whether or not his playing has any “individuality” I can’t say, having never heard him play a standard repertoire piece, but surely anyone who can produce such a fine performance of such a monstrous piece of music could probably play the phone book (as the old cliché went) and make it sound interesting. I bow to Mr. Powell. This is a monumental achievement that may never be duplicated on records ever again, and he deserves all the credit in the world for having convinced Piano Classics to let him record it.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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