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Born in the north-east London suburb of Chingford, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) was one of the most quixotic yet visionary composers of the 20th century.

Sorabji was little performed in his own lifetime, partly due to his own directive: he was distressed by inadequate interpretations, though his complex and often lengthy scores place heavy demands on performers. He eventually allowed his piano music to be played by Yonty Solomon and John Ogdon.

Comprising 27 variations on the ‘Dies Irae’ and Requiem Mass plainchants, and lasting eight-and-a-half-hours, Sequentia Cyclica is Sorabji’s longest solo piano work. In the annals of pianistic gigantism, it’s exceeded only by his unrecorded Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, and works by Fred Rzewski and Jacob Mashak.

Sorabji was inspired by Late Romantic modernism, especially Busoni and the perfumed exoticism of Szymanowski. He dedicated Sequentia Cyclica to Busoni disciple Egon Petri. The music’s structures are Baroque, but its tonality is both free and complex. Impressionistic colour is especially apparent in such movements as ‘Hispanica’ (XV) with its ornate Latin rhythms, and the delightful pastiche ‘Quasi Debussy (XIX). The score is overloaded with ornamentation and calls for extreme virtuosity, yet in this remarkable new recording by Jonathan Powell, it seems to express a deep mysticism. It’s tempting to argue, given the composer’s background, that Sorabji transferred something of the meditative aesthetic of Indian ragas to the Western classical piano.

Anyone who plays Sorabji has to be an aficionado because of the challenges involved. Powell certainly qualifies for this description. In addition to performances of Opus Clavicembalisticum – by comparison, at five hours, almost a repertoire work – Powell has given several public performances of Sequentia Cyclica. He is a passionate, immensely able advocate, and never allows Sorabji’s gigantism to tip over into excess or hysteria. Having recently reviewed a Morton Feldman collection featuring the 90-minute Triadic Memories, and 70-minute For Bunita Marcus (see IP April, page 77), it’s interesting to compare the effect of these heavenly lengths. Feldman generates a distinctive aesthetic from his use of extended timeframes, but I’m not certain the same is true of Sorabji. Powell has been rightly commended for his pacing and control of dynamics, but it would be an unusual listener who could relate that control to the work’s totality.

ANDY HAMILTON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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