Thursday 3 September 2020

An eight-hour solo piano masterpiece: Sorabji's 'Sequentia cyclica' receives its premiere performance

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji Sequentia cyclica; Jonathan Powell; Piano Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 September 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Sorabji's eight-hour piano solo masterpiece finally brought to disc

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji Sequentia cyclica; Jonathan Powell; Piano Classics

I have known about the music of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji(1892-1988) since the 1980s when, as a young man in Edinburgh, Sorabji's was a name to conjure with in the musical circles which included the Scottish pianist/composer Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015). This linkage is significant in that the two men first met in 1979, but Sorabji had known and admired Stevenson's music and writings for 20 years. Both were pianist composers whose music ran somewhat in counterpoint to prevailing orthodoxies in the 20th century.

In fact, the UK in the 20th century seems to have done a rather nice line in characterful, unorthodox pianist/composers in the 20th century what with Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-1972), whose output included six large-scale piano concertos, Ronald Stevenson, whose magnum opus is the Passacaglia on DSCH which, at nearly 90 minutes, remains one of the longest single-movement works in the repertoire, and of course Sorabji himself with a whole host of huge scale piano works including seven symphonies for piano, four toccatas, six piano sonatas, Opus Clavicembalisticum, Sequentia Cyclica and many more.

The sheer scale of Sorabji's works would seem to preclude regular performances but there was also another problem, between 1936 and 1976 the composer vetoed any performances of his works even though he continued composing. Sorabji had written his 12-movement Opus Clavicembalisticum in 1930, probably partly inspired by the Fantasia contrapuntistica by Italian pianist/composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), and Sorabji premiered Opus Clavicembalisticum in 1930. Performances of the work are expected to last around four to four and half hours. But in 1936, there was a performance of part one of the work which lasted twice as long as it should have. It is thought that it was this which led to Sorabji's ban on performance, saying 'no performance at all is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty'. Many composers have probably felt this at times, but few have put anything like it into practice.

Yet, despite this radio silence, Sorabji kept composing and a number of his later works are even more substantial than Opus Clavicembalisticum. One of great later works is his Sequentia cyclica super "Dies irae" ex Missa pro defunctis, commonly known as Sequentia cyclica. Written in 1948/49 it is a set of 27 variations on the liturgical sequence Dies Irae. It lasts over eight hours!

At first sight, the response to hearing that a pianist has recorded Sorabji's Sequentia cyclica is perhaps to ask the question why? But why not, after all we think nothing of immersing ourselves in Wagner's world for hours on end, so why not Sorabji's.

The Piano Classics label has now issued pianist Jonathan Powell's recording of Sorabji's Sequentia cyclica on seven CDs lasting a little over 500 minutes. Thus, at last giving us a chance to hear what Sorabji thought was his greatest work for piano.

Born Leon Dudley Sorabji in Essex in 1892, Sorabji's father was a Parsee from Bombay and his mother was English. He was educated privately and received a modest trust fund from his father which meant that he did not have to work. He was a talented pianist, but seems to have been self-taught as a composer and his influences are wide including Ferruccio Busoni (whom he met), and Scriabin, but also Alkan, Debussy, Godowsky, Reger and Szymanowski. 

Jonathan Powell
Jonathan Powell
Whilst pianist Jonathan Powell made his Purcell Room debut at the age of 20, he devoted much of the following decade to composition and to musicology. He studied at Cambridge, and he describes how, a month before going  he 'played Finnissy's giant English Country Tunes at the old BMIC off Oxford St, and became the first pianist other than the composer to tackle this piece'. But then became disenchanted and had no piano lessons in his twenties, only returning to pianism partly thanks to a wish to play the Russian repertoire he was discovering as part of his PhD (which was on the influence of Scriabin on Russian modernism). 

Powell has a history with Sorabji's music, he gave the first London performance of Opus Clavicembalisticum in 2003 and has given performances of it since (in 2004, 2005, and a tour in 2017). In fact, he first came across Sorabji whilst a teenager and, like many people, first heard the music in Yonty Solomon's performances (Solomon was the first person to be given permission to perform Opus Clavicembalisticum after the ban). Contact with Alistair Hinton, friend of Sorabji and founder of the Sorabji Archive, led to Powell exploring the composer's work. Having spent some time on Opus Clavicembalisticum, Powell arranged for the mammoth manuscript version of Sequentia cyclica to be typeset and performed part of it at an informal concert in 2008, then the remaining part in 2010, and finally after a private performance, gave the world premiere of the work in June 2010. Since then, he has given at least four complete performances of the piece.

So what is Sequentia Cyclica?

Kaikhosru Sorabji in 1945-(Photo Joan Muspratt)
Kaikhosru Sorabji in 1945
(Photo Joan Muspratt)
It is simply at theme and 27 variations, the theme being the Dies Irae and the final variation being a fugue. This multi-partness gives the work an element of approachability, there are 27 discrete movements, and some of the large variations are multi-part. Within the variation structure there are other structures, such as the three huge variations, the fugue (actually a quintuple fugue, stretta and coda), the passacaglia (with 100 variations), and the chorale prelude, with smaller ones such as a waltz, a funeral march, some of which are tiny. In a way the work reminds you of Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia (1960-1962) which is similarly omnium gatherum. But, that the theme in Sorabji's work, the Dies Irae, is so memorable also gives you a hook to hang on.

The music itself is elaborate, sometimes on up to six staves, richly harmonic and dense but always with a sense of structure. It is a highly dense style, yet full of arabesques and complications and diversions. Like the music of the other composers I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Stevenson and Sacheverell Coke, Sorabji's music requires a pianist who can master the notes and then get beyond them. It is music inspired by European pianist composers, Busoni and Scriabin are immediately called to mind, rather than the English tradition.

In his booklet note, Jonathan Powell is somewhat deadpan when he describes the process of bringing the work to fruition, but it is very clear that a considerable quantity of work must have gone on. Powell has Sorabji's notes and his style clearly in his fingers, and what we hear is the sort of transcendental performance that this complex music requires. And there is something rather mystically transcendent about Sorabji's style, It uses Busoni-inspired pianistic complexity to create something which goes beyond the music. This is Marmite music, not everyone will like it and listeners tend to have a strong reaction. What surprised me was how listenable the piece was; for all the complexity it does not feel abstruse.

Powell's admirably lucid booklet notes provide us with information about his own journey with Sorabji's music and with this work, along with context for Sorabji's output and a descriptive structure of the whole piece which acts as a fine guide to listening.

The work is never going to be an everyday piece, but this recording is a magnificent achievement and a significant landmark in 20th century music.

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji - Sequentia cyclica super "Dies irae" ex Missa pro defunctis, commonly known as Sequentia cyclica (1948/49) [503.50]
Jonathan Powell (piano)
Recorded at the Jacqueline Dupre Music Building, St Hilda's College, Oxford, 23, 25, 30 September, 29 November, 6 & 11 December 2015

Available from Amazon.

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