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Centaur $15

Kaikhosru Shapurji SORABJI (1892-1988)
The Complete Songs for Soprano

Trois Poèmes (1918-19): Correspondances (Charles Baudelaire) [2:41];
Crépuscule du Soir Mystique (Paul Verlaine) [2:42]; Pantomime (Paul Verlaine) [1:26]
Chrysilla (Henri de Régnier) (1915) [3:01]
Roses du Soir (Pierre Louÿs) (1915) [3:01]
The Poplars (Jovan Ducic) (1915) [3:05]
L'heure Exquise (Paul Verlaine) (1916) [2:13]
Vocalise (1916) [2:21]
I was not Sorrowful (Ernest Dowson) (1917) [2:30]
l'Étang (Maurice Rollinat) (1917) [2:37]
Hymne à Aphrodite (Laurent Tailhade) (1916) [4:59]
Apparition (Mallarmé) (1916) [2:40]
Trois Chants: (1941): 13. Le Faune (Paul Verlaine) [1:31]; Les Chats (Baudelaire) [3:01]; La Dernière Fête Galante (Paul Verlaine) [2:33]
Trois Fêtes Galantes (1919?): l'Allée (Paul Verlaine) [2:44]; A la Promenade (Paul Verlaine) [2:57]; Dans la Grotte (Paul Verlaine) [2:02]
l'Irrémédiable (Charles Baudelaire) (1927) [6:10]
Arabesque (Shamsu'd Din Ibrahim Mirza) (1920) [1:37]
Elizabeth Farnum (soprano)
Margaret Kampmeier (piano)
Recorded Aug-Nov 1999 and Aug 2000: Patrych Sound Studios, Bronx, NY, DDD
CENTAUR CRC 2613 [56:01]

I admit I was expecting a rigorous workout listening to Sorabji’s songs. It would be easy to denigrate them as Szymanowski-and-water (spiced with a dash of Debussy) but that would, I think, be to underestimate the peculiarly tenacious bifurcation of Sorabji’s musical mind. This was one that encouraged the vocal and piano parts into almost total independence of line. Instances where reflection and refraction exist are rare. Instances where the piano part responds directly to the sung line are, if not inaudible, at least hard to locate (to be fair there are some). That said these are not obviously rebarbative settings, though the Exquise nature of many of them does – it’s true – render me sometimes ambiguous.

There are many points of interest however; the nicely rippling middle section – and the leaps that test the voice - of Correspondances from Trois Poèmes, one of a trio of settings dating from 1918-19 or the second and best of the three, Crépuscule du Soir Mystique, a Verlaine setting. An ascending opening piano line, spare and aloof, then descends; the constant rise and fall of the musical line tangentially reflects the lyrics, subtle, night-haunted and one that generates increasing fluency as the poem poisons in the middle section. Declamatory chords hammer home the fixity. It ends in an ascending, displaced imitation of the opening piano phrases, a vortex of fin-de-siècle intensity and characterised with discernment. As if to banish care Sorabji’s setting of the last of the three is light, wispy and witty. Chrysilla dates from a few years earlier – 1915 – and packs a tremendous amount into its three-minute length. This is a complex impressionistic setting with full chords, a declamatory role for the soprano (Elizabeth Farnum really comes into her own here) and some passionate outbursts and, finally, moments of intense reflection. Roses du Soir certainly represents an austere Arcadia – but also a romantic one once more with bold chordal flourishes. The Poplars may well be his first setting of a song; it’s in English too, which is unusual for Sorabji who, as an aesthete, naturally decided his own native language was unable to bear the weight of his genius. It’s mordant, full of darkening unease, pensive left hand, dark sonorities in the bass and made me wish he’d deigned to set more English lyrics. L’Heure Exquise vapours into stillness and by contrast Vocalise sees the piano-voice dichotomy bridged at least partially, the piano reflective in the spaces between the soprano’s vocalise – the whole setting ending on a note of unresolved assertion.

L'Étang opens with deep rolling thunder in the bass – pictorial, effective – and is full of sombre glinting light, spectral and rather sickly menace. Hymne à Aphrodite is a big setting – tough, too, ranging from truly declamatory outburst to interiority and reserve. I admired the trill-as-laugh game of Verlaine’s Le Faune and how, unlike the first two settings of the cycle, La Dernière Fête Galante opens in an unashamedly avuncular way, replete with a sophisticated, if knowing, coolness. The allusive piano part – here as elsewhere Margaret Kampmeier is right inside her music – evokes the ripple on the water. The long L’Irrémédiable, a poem of Baudelaire, is a setting of frequently abrasive emotionalism, one that ranges from rugged to elfin. It seems to encompass a huge amount (in truth, too much). The Arabesque of 1920 ends the recital in suitably elliptical, jewel-like fashion; it glints in the sun.

The excellent notes are by the curator of the Sorabji archive, Alistair Hinton. The poems are broken up into paragraphs in the text, poetic line endings indicated with a "forward slash." As Mr Punch almost said – that’s not the way to do it. Still, the musicians are admirable in their roles. Farnum is certainly stretched by some of Sorabji’s less grateful writing but she acquits herself with distinction.

Jonathan Woolf

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