Classical CD Reviews

SORABJI: Rosario d’Arabeschi: Guilistan – Jonathan Powell, piano – Altarus

Another of the complex, free harmony, Liszt-on-uppers piano music of Sorabji.

Published on July 29, 2013

SORABJI: Rosario d’Arabeschi: Guilistan – Jonathan Powell, piano – Altarus

KAIKHOSRU SHAPURJI SORABJI: Rosario d’Arabeschi; Gulistān – Jonathan Powell, piano – Altarus AIR 9083, 72:19 [Distr. by Albany] ***:

This is the sixth recording of the music of Sorabji (1892 – 1988) performed by Jonathan Powell and released by Altarus. That is a significant accomplishment since The Oxford Companion to Music describes the composer as writing “pianoforte pieces of a technical difficulty that defies approach to all but the most perfectly equipped performers …”. Born in Chingford, England to a Parsi (Persian/Iranian) father and a Spanish/Sicilian mother, Sorabji remained in Britain yet  rejected his British heritage (and his given names – Leon Dudley) in his early 20s and embraced his Parsi roots, as is evident in the naming of much of his music, and his own re-naming.

Following piano lessons from his mother and a few others, he launched a career of composing, almost entirely for piano, and writing music criticism.  His father’s wealth permitted him to go in his own direction in both these endeavours, so he was often not tactful in his writing about other composers.  The qualities he did like in a few composers – e.g. Busoni, Alkan, Reger – appear in his own music. Baroque structure (toccatas, fugues, canons), complex and free harmony and tonality, much ornamentation and virtuosity, all are evident in the two selections on this disc.

There is speculation, but no definite answer, as to why Sorabji developed a self-described “mania for privacy” early in his working life. Perhaps it was a particularly bad performance by another pianist of one of his pieces, perhaps it was his unacceptable sexual orientation. For whatever reason, he built himself a granite house, posted a sign: “Visitors Unwelcome” and withdrew from contact with the public from 1936 until his death in 1988.

A few people, notably the Scottish composer Alistair Hinton, succeeded in scaling the barriers Sorabji had erected. The result was permission being granted in the early 1970s to two pianists, Michael Habermann and Yonty Solomon, to perform Sorabji’s work in recitals. Interest in the composer increased to the point where the BBC broadcast three television documentaries about him – 1977, 1979 and 1980 – but all without Sorabji’s cooperation. These recordings by Powell, and other brave souls (including Ogden, Madge, Bowyer and Hamelin) reflect another resurgence of interest.

Rosario d’arabeschi, the first selection here, was completed in 1956, well into the second half of his 70+ year composing career..  The piece was dedicated to a lifelong friend, Sachaverell Sitwell, younger brother of the more famous Edith and Osbert. Sitwell responded by writing a collection of poems under the same name, most of which are named after roses. There are three sections to this piece – Introito, Ostinato doppio/Punta d”organa/Cadenza and Tarantella/Coda-Ripresa. Powell handles the long and complicated melodic lines of the lengthy middle section easily, and his fast toccata-like fingering in the last movement is impressive.

I preferred the second piece, Gulistān, a long impressionistic reminder of Ravel. Sorabji transcribed Ravel’s  Rapsodie Espagnloe in 1940the same year he composed Gulistān. It is described as a Nocturne for Piano, and reflects the influence of the composer John Ireland, whom he admired. Sorabji’s piano writing had not yet become as ferociously difficult as it later became, so this is just easier listening.

The accompanying booklet is disappointing. It provides no timings, overall nor for the individual pieces or movements, and no indication where or when the recordings took place. Notes about the first piece, Rosario d’arabeschi, consist of a series of short, chatty, almost gossipy, excerpts from letters between Sorabji and Sacaverell Sitwell, the dedicatee, but no analysis nor substance. The notes for Gulistān, are better, but with no indication of who wrote them, perhaps Powell.

This recording is a good introduction to a most challenging composer’s work. But, to complete the Oxford Companion quotation from the first paragraph, it “ …repels all but the most receptive and persevering listeners…”

—Paul Kennedy

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