Notes and Editorial Reviews
In contrast to Sorabji's first three single-movement piano sonatas, the 1929 Sonata No. 4 is structured in three movements that add up to more than two and a half hours of music. There are traces of the late-Romantic harmonic language characterizing Sorabji's earliest keyboard essays (imagine Cyril Scott or Arnold Bax with extra padding), but the Fourth Sonata's polytonal, polytextural, poly-everything surface style is more in keeping with the composer's subsequent large-scale piano opus, the better-known Opus Clavicembalisticum. Sorabji himself performed the Fourth Sonata in 1930 and left an extensive program note outlining the themes and overall structure--which is fortunate, because it's difficult to make head or tail of the music by
simply listening to it. My sense of Sorabji and his larger works (at least the ones that are available on disc) relates to a tailor who has a genius for the look and feel of the finest fabric yet can't put a suit together to save his life.
The Fourth Sonata's long first movement, for example, works best in its slower, lyrical, less texturally complex sections. In faster music, the large masses of chords, stringy runs and scales, and busy counterpoint operate in a constant state of flux that largely negates rhythmic momentum and harmonic tension. The central movement might be described as a 35-minute Nocturne, where the textures are impressionistic and sensual in terms of gesture, yet are devoid of memorable melodic content. The third movement opens with a note-churning toccata underscored by an annoyingly reiterating E-flat pedal-point (play any other note for a pedal-point in this passage, and it actually makes no damned bit of difference!), and closes with two massive fugues and a coda that seems to suck up all the previous music like a powerful vacuum cleaner hose. At times during the movement's Scherzo fantasiata and Cadenza, whimsical phrases and suggestive trills hint at more playful, skittish possibilities. But no, Sorabji is intent on keeping up his humorless guard.
So here's the $64,000 question: What keeps me coming back to Sorabji's pretentious, long-winded, overwritten, and ultimately boring big pieces? Because when you have a pianist of Jonathan Powell's superhuman technical abilities and intelligence, let alone his unflagging stamina, you can't not pay attention. I can only imagine how much practice and forethought went into this project, together with Powell's obvious commitment to make the Fourth Sonata sound utterly cohesive, beautiful, monumental, and important, come hell or high water.
Altarus' engineering is a bit close and bright (beef up the bass with your equalizer), yet it does better justice to Powell's clear, ringing tone than the label's previous Powell/Sorabji release (Toccata No. 1). Powell's sincere and serious advocacy of this music extends to his superb booklet notes. Will Altarus take advantage of Powell's frequent Opus Clavicembalisticum performances during the 2004-05 season, and give us its first completely satisfactory recording?
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Toccata for Piano no 1 by Kaikhosru Sorabji
Jonathan Powell (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1928; England
Length: 74 Minutes 53 Secs.
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