A Mystery Man Who Produced Piano Music by the Truckload

By Paul Griffiths (New York Times, June 13th 2004)

When he died — nearly 16 years ago, at 96 — Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was hardly more than a formidable name. It was a name that could be found on a few scores in libraries and music shops, but these had all been published long before and had remained unplayed for decades, by Sorabji’s wish. He was never very interested in performances. He preferred privacy, which gave him the freedom to think on an unprecedented scale, covering great lengths of time without bothering about the customs of concert life.

Next Sunday at Merkin Concert Hall, as the climax of a little Sorabji festival, the British pianist Jonathan Powell will perform Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930), whose three parts unfold through four and a half hours. By comparison, the Fifth Piano Symphony (1972–73), which the American pianist Donna Amato will perform on Thursday, also at Merkin, is a mere bagatelle, running two and a half hours.

These durations would mean nothing, of course, if they were not filled with fascinating music. They are. Sorabji, as a young man in London during the years before World War I, got to know the music that seemed most modern, exciting and esoteric. He was fascinated by the sumptuous harmonies and glittering textures of the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, but the example that meant most to him was that of the German-Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni.

Like Busoni, Sorabji was born astride cultures — only more so. Although he was always stingy with biographical information, he seems to have been born in suburban London in 1892, and originally named Leon Dudley Sorabji. His father was a civil engineer of Parsi parentage from Mumbai, his mother a singer of Spanish and Sicilian ancestry. He never visited India himself — or Spain or Sicily; a visit to Paris seems to have been his only trip abroad. Yet the sound of his music is exuberantly exotic, with its lustrous chromatic harmonies, its touches of Eastern modality and its great profusion of detail.

At the same time — and here Busoni was a specific influence — Sorabji revered Bach. Harmonies that would be static in Szymanowski are wrought into dynamic processes of change. However free and dazzling the right hand may seem, the left is holding it in a contrapuntal grip, and the music is full of recurring motifs.

Moreover, the contradictions in Busoni — between showiness and contemplation, composition and recomposition (of operatic hit tunes as well as Bach), vast learning and narrow concentration, experiment and tradition — became Sorabji’s own, and he adopted the Busoniesque persona of the sage who dispenses arcane knowledge from the piano bench.

The piano was always central. In his 20’s and early 30’s, Sorabji produced eight piano concertos (along with four sonatas and other solo works), but he didn’t seek to perform any of them. (So far, only one has ever been played, last year by Ms. Amato.) Then in 1930 came Opus Clavicembalisticum, a gigantic summary and extension of what he had discovered — not least about generating musical forms that, beginning in feverish excitement, nevertheless have the capacity to continue at greater lengths than any earlier composer had dreamed of.

Performances and recordings are at last starting to show the benefits of Sorabji’s daring. Alistair Hinton, who befriended Sorabji in his later years and founded the Sorabji Archive to manage his musical estate, justly points out how the music’s absorbing continuity gives the player the stamina to proceed — and the listener the power to stay with it. Mr. Hinton once met a woman who had heard Sorabji play Opus Clavicembalisticum in Glasgow in 1930 and could testify to the music’s charisma: “It was the most terrifying experience of my life, musical or otherwise,” he quoted her as saying. “I hated it, but I could not tear my ears away.”

Others, reacting to the music more positively, have felt the same way. The pianist John Ogdon, who played and recorded the work in the 1980’s, said that when he got to the end of the piece, he would have liked to start all over again. Mr. Powell, who enraptured a London audience with the lucidity of his approach last year, also seems to finish the work not exhausted but energized and ready for more.