A long-awaited Sorabji premiere on disc: the eight-hour cycle of 27 variations based on the ‘Dies Irae’ and Requiem Mass plainchants, performed by one of the composer’s most dedicated modern exponents.
As Jonathan Powell explains in an invaluable booklet essay, the present recording is the result of many years’ acquaintance with and preparation of this music. He is uniquely equipped to undertake the mammoth task of learning one of Sorabji’s most ambitious scores, having already given several public performances of the five-hour Opus clavicembalisticum which is, by comparison, almost a repertoire work, at least for dedicated followers of this most eccentric, quixotic, withdrawn and yet visionary of20th-century composers.
Then in 2011 Powell first performed the Sequentia Cyclica, having been studying the music since 2002, and since then has given another four and a half public performances. Sorabji attempted to restrict performances of his music, by and large successfully, to only performers ‘with the sheer grit, determination and staying power,’ such ‘rare birds’ that they may be relied upon ‘to deduce, from internal evidence, what sort of treatment the music calls for,’ and in Jonathan Powell the composer has a worthy advocate and successor to the likes of Yonty Solomon and John Ogdon.
And to Egon Petri, dedicatee of Sequentia Cyclica, once Sorabji had completed the score in 1949. Petri was the foremost living disciple of Ferruccio Busoni – another composer who provoked perplexity and extravagant praise during his lifetime – and from the opening outline of the Dies Irae chant, it becomes clear that the cycle will evolve according to the principles of Sorabji’s particular, Busoni-derived, Liszt-originated formula of intricate counterpoint and lush harmonies. As ever, Sorabji does not pretend to make the performer’s life easy, writing across six staves at some points, and leaving much of the expression to be intuited by the pianist. He regarded it, however, as ‘the climax and crown of his work for the piano.’ Its first recording, therefore, is a landmark achievement, which will be welcomed and sought after by pianophiles the world over.
Khaikosru Sorabji (1892-1988) is one of the most enigmatic and controversial 20th century composers. Largely self-taught he chose his own way, never fitting into any school or movement. His style is highly idiosyncratic, inspired by late-romantics like Busoni and Szymanowski.
Characteristic for his piano music are the enormous proportions and textural density of his works, some of them lasting several hours in performance, taxing the performer and audience to the utmost.
This new CD set presents the first recording of the Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae, a massive work on the basis of the famous Dies Irae plainchant from the Requiem mass. It presents 27 variations, varying in length between a few minutes and more than one hour, in total over 8,5 hours long. It was written in 1948/49 and Sorabji regarded the work as “the climax and crown of his works for the piano and, in all probability, the last he will write”.
It is impossible to describe the work in a few sentences, like all Sorabji’s works is has to be experienced in whole in order to come to terms with its vast implications and scope.
The performance is a true tour de force by pianist Jonathan Powell, who performed it several times live. He is also the author of the lengthy and illuminating booklet essay.