SORABJI: Transcendental Studies Nos. 84-100 / Fredrik Ullén, pno / Bis SACD-2433
Having already put Kaikhosru Sorabji’s other massive works, the Opus Clavicembalisticum and Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae, on disc—the first of these in two different recordings, a somewhat flawed but interesting reading by the late John Ogdon and a perfectly-played performance by Geoffrey Douglas Madge—as well as his “little” Toccata that takes up a full CD, all that was left was for someone to record his Symphonic Variations and Transcendental Studies. The former has still not seen a recording (it lasts over nine hours in performance), but now, at long last, Swedish pianist Fredrik Ullén has finally completed the latter.
Not that it didn’t take him a long time to do so. The first CD in this series was recorded in 2005 and released in 2006, whereas this final entry in the series and the only 2-CD set was recorded between June 2018 and December 2019, so we’re talking about a 14-year project. When he started, Ullén’s hair was a chestnut brown; now it is shot through with gray. Whether this is just the result of aging or the protracted work of learning, practicing and recording these pieces, I can’t say, but the ironic thing is that Ullén took longer to record this cycle than Sorabji did to compose it (he wrote it between 1940 and 1944).
Although the Transcendental Studies (a.k.a. the Transcendental Etudes) run over eight hours in total, they are, like any collection of such pieces, not necessarily intended to be played as a whole in one sitting. A pianist could, if he or she chose, play just one or a small group of them in a recital. Although certain pianists have chosen to play only parts of Opus Clavicembalisticum in recitals and on records, that work is really supposed to be played from beginning to end, so this specific collection is a bit unique in Sorabji’s output.
Like the previous Studies in this series, some have titles, such as “Tango habanera,” “Studio grammatico,” “Legato possible” and, believe it or not, even “Chopsticks.” Others are untitled. And here’s another weird thing: Studies 84-98 are amazingly short pieces by Sorabji’s standards, running from just 54 seconds (the untitled No. 95) to 3:32 (the untitled No. 10) with the exception of No. 84, the “Tango habanera,” which runs 9:03. But then we hit No. 99, “Quasi fantasia,” which runs for 16:07, and then, as if to completely confuse everyone, No. 100 is a “Coda-Finale: Fuga a cinque soggetti” that takes nearly an hour to play (55:56), including a final Stretto maestrale—Libero quasi cadenza con punta d’organo that runs 11:53, longer than any previous piece except for No. 99.
But of course, Sorabji was Sorabji, a composer who delighted in confounding his listeners, thus even the simply titled “Tango habanera” is scarcely a straightforward habanera, but rather a piece that opens up in habanera rhythm but quickly deconstructs itself, splintering into amazingly complex cross-rhythms that I’m sure gave poor Mr. Ullén fits when he first saw the music. But by golly, he masters it, and does so in a way that allows him to play it in a very spirited fashion. The strangest thing about Sorabji’s music, I think, is the fact that for all its harmonic and rhythmic complexities, it is still more accessible to the average listener than, say, the piano music of modern composers who never touch tonality at all. Yes, it takes great concentration to listen to it, but there always seems to be something in each piece that even a lay listener can grasp…although I had to laugh when reading in the liner notes that, when he was sent to a nursing home in his last years, this man who said he would never play his music for anyone ever again sat down at the nursing home’s battered old upright and played one of his long works for the out-of-it residents.
Anyway. Study No. 85 is a rapid-fire Presto piece of formidable difficulty that leans towards both the major and the minor simultaneously. You have to hear it to believe it. The same goes with No. 87, a “scale etude” so rapid as to challenge the articulation of any living pianist—yet somehow, Ullén manages to do it. And I’m sure it will take your mind more than a few seconds to wrap itself around Sorabji’s convoluted variations on “Chopsticks.” Study No. 90 is particularly modern-sounding in the sense of abstract music without a firm grounding in any key, actually a fairly rare sort of thing for Sorabji. By contrast No. 91, “Volante leggiero,” is a playful piece taken at a medium tempo, only moderately complicated by his standards. I would think that nearly any competent classical pianist, even one from the 1940s when it was written, could have played this in concert and at least have had several interested listeners in the audience. The surprisingly Romantic, Medtner-like Study No. 96 is also quite attractive, despite its elusive melodic line. And yet, he immediately follows this up with the rigorous, Stravinsky-like Study No. 97. He was clearly a man of great contrasts.
No. 99 is a typical Sorabjian fantasia built around rapid scale figures and crashing chords; believe it or not, its 16-minute length goes by rather quickly. The uber-long No. 100 opens with a simple two-voice fugue, bitonal yet charming in its own way, before expanding into extra voices. The simple theme is also developed into a more complex structure as the work unfolds. The long final fugue, which is played very slowly, is as good as anything in Sorabji’s output, and that’s saying quite a bit.
Despite the numerous recordings of his music now on the market, Sorabji remains underperformed by most pianists and unappreciated by the majority of classical audiences. It clearly took a great deal of dedication, in addition to time and energy, for Fredrik Ullén to master and record this entire series of performance for what will surely be a somewhat limited number of record-buyers—if there are any record buyers other than myself left in the world. Most people just stream their music or, at best, download the MP3s to their iPhones or iPads. Some store them on jump sticks for future listening…through crappy phone or computer speakers. Only a minority, like me, have an actual quality stereo system with good speakers to play my CDs through.
And let’s face it: those pianist who do perform and record Sorabji, with the sole exception of Geoffrey Douglas Madge who seems to have had a fairly extensive career, tend to be outliers in the classical world. I really wonder how many music buffs would know the names of Michael Haberman (the 1970s Sorabji pioneer), Lukas Huisman, Jonathan Powell, Abel Sanchez-Aguilera or even Mr. Ullén outside of their Sorabji recordings? I would hope so, but am not sure. Ullén’s other recordings seem to be mostly of similarly modern composers like György Ligeti, John Pickard, Kent Olofsson, Chiayu Hau and Pavol Simai.
For those who appreciate and enjoy Sorabji’s music, however, this is clearly an extremely valuable release. Now, which intrepid keyboard player will be bold enough to tackle his Symphonic Variations?
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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