KAIKHOSRU SHAPURJI SORABJI: Symphonia brevis (Fifth Symphony for Piano Solo) – Donna Amato, p. – Altarus AIR-CD-9064 (2 CDs), 2 hrs. [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Another immense solo piano epic from the British-born Parsi composer who lived until 1988. His piano creations are of extraordinary length and great difficulty, inaccessible to some pianists. Amazingly, this one is titled “Symphonia brevis,” yet it is over two hours long! That gives you an idea right there. Sorabji once wrote to his friend Peter Warlock “You claim that I write monstrosities which only the composer can play. What if they were meant only for the composer?”
Well, brave little Altarus plans to eventually release a complete discography of Sorabji’s works on CD, and this is the latest in the series. Pianist Amato is certainly a very brave and dedicated performer. Among the composer’s influences were Alkan, Busoni, Reger, Szymanowski, Scriabin and Delius. His music has occasional passages of very lovely tonal material, but much of it may sound on first hearing like a modern-day Liszt gone barking mad. He was reticent about his life, and often even refused permission for his music to be performed publicly. He seemed to have his own finances, and at the gate of his house in Dorset he had a sign saying “Visitors Unwelcome.” (The village is called Corfe Castle, and that’s the ruins of the castle in the CD cover photo.)
Sorabji had a quite different concept of time in music, even beyond that of Mahler, for example. The brevis symphony is actually a miracle of concision by his standards; the amount and type of material contained in it could not be properly explored on a smaller scale, and this is true of all his more massive works. They are not at all variations on the relationship of minimal musical material to extended amounts of time—they are instead very highly-concentrated journeys of discovery and exploration, with many things going on in them. Sorabji used landscape-format music paper for all his later works in order to accommodate his long sweeping phrases without breaks in the lines.
Part I of the work is packed with a total barrage of musical ideas coming one after another. Its latter part shows Sorabji’s major debt to Busoni in the development of themes, even quoting some of Busoni’s music. It is also constructed in a subtle version of sonata-form. The other sections of the work are all contained in Part II, which are given the letters a thru g on the title page. The first is an almost standard slow movement Adagio, the next a fanfare-like toccata. The Aria fiorita is also slow but different from the Adagio in suggesting—via just the piano—an operatic scene, with voices and orchestra clearly defined. A short Interlude is followed by a long slow movement titled Notturno. It seeks to create an impression of a heavy and perfumed tropical atmosphere. The final movement, Nexus, is actually made up of four distinct sections, sort of like another miniature symphony. It begins with a prelude introducing some fugue subjects which then turn into a massive double fugue. There follow various variations and fugues, with the final fugue concluding with a volcanic ending, but the real end of the work seems to quietly disappear.
— John Sunier