Jonathan Powell

Composers:Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji
Compositions: Sequentia cyclica, super dies iræ, KSS 71
Performers: Jonathan Powell p
Catalogue Number:Piano Classics PCL10206 (7CD)

The Dies Irae theme, a piece of Gregorian chant attributed to Tommaso de Celano (1200-1260), remains familiar from its appearances in later music, notably in the works of Rachmaninov and the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The solo piano work Sequentia Cyclica by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988), recorded here for the first time, consists of 27 variations on that well-known theme.

Sorabji was an eccentric, reclusive man. Born to a Parsi father and English mother, he had a minor career as a critic and pianist, eventually turning his back on London’s musical scene and resolutely refusing to allow his compositions to be performed or published. He wrote many solo piano works on a monumental scale. British virtuoso composer/pianist Jonathan Powell has been playing Sorabji for years: As a specialist in Busoni, Szymanowski and Scriabin, it was inevitable his interest would alight on a composer strongly influenced by all three.

Sequentia Cyclica (1948/49) requires seven discs and lasts for over eight hours. The theme is presented as a cantus firmus to begin with, but undergoes metamorphosis into a waltz, a funeral march, a Spanish dance, and more. The largest variations are major creations in themselves: No 10 is a shimmering Fantasia, mesmerising in its cumulative effect; No 22 is a massive Passacaglia containing one hundred variations of its own, and the final Variation No 27 is a multiple fugue lasting 41 minutes. The 27-minute Variation 14, titled “Punta d’organo”, unfolding over a single note, sounds like a supernaturally expanded and magnified meditation on Le Gibet from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. While Powell has presented the entire cycle in one concert (!), I would recommend the listener dip into it to discover this unique, exotic masterpiece: occasionally abrasive, often voluptuous, overflowing with musical ideas, and performed with extraordinary skill and sensitivity.