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Kaikhosru Shapurji SORABJI (1892-1988)
Sequentia Cyclica, Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis (1948-49)
Jonathan Powell (piano)
rec. 2015, Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford
PIANO CLASSICS PCL10206 [7 CDs: 503:15]

Sorabji’s Sequentia Cyclica, Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis, monumental in size and complexity, makes his Opus clavicembalisticum seem like a mere entrée. The Sorabji Archive’s approximate duration of the former’s 260 manuscript pages clocks in at just over four and a half hours. Jonathan Powell’s exploration of Sequentia Cyclica is almost twice that length in this, the world premiere recording that stretches over seven CDs. Sorabji thought it his best work for piano.

The work was dedicated to Egon Petri, the only pianist, Sorabji asserted, who could be seen in the direct lineage of Petri’s teacher, Busoni, whom Sorabji revered. The huge edifice consists of a theme and 27 variations on the Dies irae, the last of which is a vast quintuple fugue, stretta and coda. In fact, vastness – there are three variations lasting an hour each – is couched in a structure of astonishing fertility and variety, whilst also remaining resolutely complex. Those vast columnar hour-long variations are essentially slow-moving but there are also chorales, moto perpetuos, and ariosos. The Dies irae reappears frequently, inflected, reflected, refracted, a constant presence throughout the gripping, exhausting but essential journey. As such the music, at whatever pace it unfolds, is full of narrative strength, of contrasts of texture, tempo and harmony and sports the most remarkable building up and relaxation of tempo as well as cataclysmic polyrhythms.

What is so revealing is that within the vast edifice there are so many opportunities for changes of character and mood. The demanding toccata (variation 1) is followed by a more insinuating Legato (variation 3) that itself leads on to a 66-minute variation often redolent of a chorale. The ferociously rhapsodic variation 5 prefaces a drolly contrapuntal variation. A contrapuntal waltz, visceral but often, at points, almost charming – not something one associates with Sorabji - moves forward to a Szymanowskian nocturne, on a vast 33-minute scale (variation 10). Yet calmness and limpidity are also very much part of the schema. Elsewhere one finds tolling passages, a jota, the influence of Alkan and Busoni himself, funereal paragraphs, the brief furtive smile of a barcarolle. The huge Passacaglia (variation 22) – 97 minutes of ceaseless evolving – is probably the centrepiece of the work though the briefer variations that follow offer expressive divergencies and indeed divergences of scale - - the con brio variation lasts over 12 minutes whilst No.25 barely lasts two minutes. No.24 is interior, reflective, and haunted by Liszt and Busoni again whilst No.26. ‘pomposo e maestoso’ offers some gaunt sonorities and bell tolls. This prefaces the culmination of the piece, the 80-minute fugue, stretto and coda, the fugue adding an extra voice as it develops.

Jonathan Powell gave the world premiere of the work in Glasgow in 2010. He has also written the extensive booklet notes which contextualise and itemise Sorabji’s achievement. The recording is a touch on the cool side but any lack of reverberance is hugely outweighed by Powell’s technically remarkable, idiomatically perceptive performance. The recording took six days in total to complete and at the end one has, in a handy box, a massive work performed with unremittingly massive conviction.

Jonathan Woolf

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