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S & H Recital Review

Sorabji, Opus Clavicembalisticum, Jonathan Powell (piano), Purcell Room, Tuesday, September 16th, 2003 (CC)


What a remarkable way to open a concert series! Jonathan Powell, in an act of bravery crossed with dedication and generosity, unleashed Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s pianistic magnum opus on a London audience to open the Park Lane Group’s 48th Season. In 1988, it was John Ogdon who, at the invitation of the PLG, did the honours with this work next door at the QEH. Powell was giving only the tenth complete public performance of a work that the composer himself referred to as merely, ‘Opus’. Even the programme booklet was huge, including essays by Sorabji, Ronald Stevenson, Yonty Solomon and Powell himself, to name but a few.

Opus is a marathon for pianist and audience alike: as the time approached for last tubes/trains etc., it seemed to be Sorabji’s ‘Farewell Symphony for Piano,’ as seats were made vacant. There is a sense of achievement for the listener when it is over that can only be likened to getting to the end of Meistersinger. This comparison works remarkably well, in fact. Both composers seem to bend the fabric of time for the listener so six hours seems more like one. Except that in Sorabji’s case, his sometimes highly perfumed, sometimes intensely rigorous language is even more like a drug: no matter how much one gets of it, one still wants more. Maybe that is why, when the end finally came, there was still the feeling that there could indeed have been more – a similar effect occurred at the end of the first Fugue, whose final chord was more punctuating than prepared. The Fugue could have gone on, mesmerically, forever.

This is not music for the faint-hearted. Jonathan Powell is a young man with a serious technique and a dazzling intellect to match. He is a major talent and one that should be watched closely. Sorabji throws every sort of problem at the performer. Powell met them all head on, with none of the quirks of Ogdon (I remember Ogdon in 1988 rather disconcertingly on several occasions moving his hands to one part of the keyboard, deciding he didn’t want that bit, and playing in another register instead). Powell has the enthusiasm of youth on his side, from which comes his remarkable aura of assurance.

Right from the declamatory beginning, leading to Sorabjian clouds of sound, this was to be a noble account. Sorabji’s granitic aggregations of sound were contrasted with passages where Powell’s touch would have been appropriate in a Bach Two-Part Invention (in the ‘Fantasia’ from Part 1, for example). The First Fugue was particularly memorable for its tremendously beautiful austerity. Throughout Powell gave Sorabji’s thought processes completely unapologetically, no matter what the eccentricity may be. He also had the ability to make passages dance, despite their complexity.

Indeed, throughout, voice leading was little short of miraculous. The huge ‘Fuga a tre soggetti’ which rounded off the second part of the score (and the first part of the concert: 600pm-840pm!) was imbued with an inexorable inevitability. Interesting to note that Powell’s pianistic vocabulary includes a healthy martellato touch, employed to great and exciting effect at the close of the three-subjected fugue.

In a sense, perhaps an interval was a bad idea. Radical thought, I know, but it was the opening parts of the ‘Interludium Alterum’ after the break that exposed chinks in Powell’s armour, as if the interval had stemmed his flow of concentration. Once Powell was back in his stride, however, Sorabji’s magnificence was revealed in its fullest flowering. The Messiaenic play-games of Cadenza II (the tenth movement) were remarkable. The enormous concluding ‘Fuga a Quattro Soggetti’ and ‘Coda Stretta’ were, appropriately, the true climax of the evening. They exuded a sense of continuous exploration (and there was real peace in parts of the Fugue). There was also an exultant, ecstatic feeling added to this stage of the performance that left the audience breathless. All the way through, Powell displayed an almost preternatural ability to delineate the undelineateable. The immediate standing ovation was fully deserved.

Sorabji’s musical world is unique. At times it invokes Impressionist soundscapes, at times Messiaen’s spiritual transcendence, at times Bach’s highest spiritual austerity, at times César Franck’s nobility. The Messiaen connection (parts of the ‘Interludium Alterum’ which opens the Third Part drove this parallel home) made me speculate what Pierre-Laurent Aimard may do with this piece, and whether he has ever considered it. Apart from the obvious reference to Ogdon, this is one of the two points at which I thought of other pianists: the other was early on, when Powell’s grunts and humming brought Pollini to mind! It is a tribute to Powell’s prowess, however, that the evening remained uniquely his, a visceral demonstration of his dedication to Sorabji. The impressive concert programme indicates Mr Powell will be playing more music by this composer at St Cyprien’s Chruch, London N1 on February 20th, 2004, including several World and UK premières. I will be doing my best to be there.

Colin Clarke



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