Alistair Hinton: Sorabji’s Concertos (2/2)

By the same token, unfortunately, the larger the orchestra for which Sorabji wrote, the less consistently conscious he seemed to be of the particular forces, colours, timbres at his disposal. There are, nevertheless, some spectacular and ravishing moments in the Jami Symphony — (not least the dramatic placing of out-of-the-blue quotations from Szymanowski’s opera Król Roger and Chausson’s Symphony in B flat).

In general, however, one is left with the impression that one of the problems with Sorabji’s most ambitious orchestral writing stems from his lack of opportunities to work with intelligent and sensitive conductors who might have understood his vision and given him a few advantageous pointers — rather as some of Havergal Brian’s later work may be seen as having suffered to some extent from too much composition and not enough rehearsal and performance. (Brian, it must be said, displayed tremendous facility in his treatment of large orchestral forces in his early symphonies, but this may well have been helped, at least in part, by a closer practical orchestral experience than ever befell Sorabji.

Had Sorabji found the chance of working with conductors of the eminence of Scherchen, for example (of whose book on the conductor’s art Lehrbuch des Dirigierens he expressed warm admiration in print), his orchestral writing may have gained from the experience. As it is, Sorabji’s piano concertos progressed apace — although it seems that he may have become dissatisfied with numbers 2, 3 and 4 since the only one to reach publication — the fifth — was actually published as “Concerto II”, as though its composer chose to distance himself from its three immediate predecessors.

He did not actually give numbers to 2, 3 or 4; number 6 was described in the autograph manuscript as “Concerto iii”, the seventh, subtitled Simorg-Anka [Sīmurgh-‘Anqā], was also unnumbered in the composer’s ms. and the eighth and last piano concerto was described as “Concerto V”. If Coward had “a talent to amuse”, Sorabji could equally amuse and irritate with his “talent to confuse” — and just to add further to the confusion, his Symphony No. 1 of 1921–22 contains a part for piano more elaborate and texturally prominent than that in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and thus is really almost another “concerto for piano and orchestra” in all but name. Sorabji’s last three works for piano and orchestra date from long after he had abandoned the “Concerto”.

These are the Symphonic Variations (completed in 1954), which are a version for piano and orchestra of part of his solo piano work of the same title completed in 1938, with the addition of a long orchestral introduction; Opus Clavisymphonicum, completed in 1959 and dedicated to his old friend John Ireland (who was long before the dedicatee of Sorabji’s short orchestral Opusculum of 1923); and, finally Opusculum Clavisymphonicum, a massive two movement work for piano and small instrumental ensemble completed in 1975 whose latter movement is a set of variations on the Grechaninov Creed.

Of all these works, the most outstanding — and in many ways the exception amongst those immediately around it — was the only one Sorabji chose to publish. Completed in 1920, dedicated to Alfred Cortot, his Piano Concerto No. 5 appeared in print in 1923 and waited a further 80 years for its world première which was given by Donna Amato with Netherlands Radio Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard. Unlike its neighbours, it is cast in one single movement of almost 30 minutes’ duration and displays an orchestral fecundity well above the technical level of its predecessors. Although its full score exists in print, there are numerous errors in the publication, of which some are patently obvious and others rather less so. Sorabji’s long-time friend the cellist and composer Mervyn Vicars studied the published score in some depth and prepared a list of corrigenda which the composer approved (the copy supplied by The Sorabji Archive includes Vicars typed corrections and Sorabji’s endorsements of them).

Regrettably, however, the whereabouts of the full score autograph manuscript remains unknown although Cortot certainly possessed a copy — possibly in a copyist’s hand and annotated by Sorabji — of the solo piano part. What is more unfortunate, as far as immediate opportunities to get to grips with Sorabji’s piano and orchestra works are concerned, is the fact that there exist orchestral parts for only one of them to date. Although these concerted works are undoubtedly not the most arresting in Sorabji’s vast repertoire, it would undoubtedly put him in better perspective when we are able to hear well-crafted accounts of his Piano Concertos Nos. 7 and 8 and Opus Clavisymphonicum in particular; opportunities to absorb his Opusculum Clavisymphonicum would also give us an idea of how and why, in his eighties, he flexed his still energetic creative muscles in a work of at least two hours duration for piano and chamber ensemble.

[This is an updated version of an article which originally appeared at]