English choral group the Ora Singers, led by Suzi Digby, present Thomas Tallis’s magnificent forty-part motet Spem in Alium on their latest Harmonia Mundi recording. Split into eight choirs of five apiece, the singers are given many opportunities to overlap in successive entrances, interact among cohorts, and sound immensely scored chords. The Ora Singers present a beautiful performance that combines purity of sound with thrilling forte climaxes. Digby deserves plaudits for her careful shaping of phrases and mastery of Spem’s myriad challenging balancing acts.
Most of the rest of the recording contains Latin works by composers active in England during the sixteenth century. These include three of foreign descent – Derrick Gerrard, Philip Van Wilder, and Alonso Ferrabosco the Elder. Van Wilder’s Pater Noster is filled with delicately corruscating lines and the composer’s Vidi civitatem is particularly poignant, with arcing entries blending with subdued declamatory phrases. Ferrabosco is as well known for suggestions of criminality and spying (for Queen Elizabeth, no less) as he is for his music. Ferrabosco’s In Monte Oliveti contains widely spaced, sumptuous harmonies while Judica me Domine is performed with long flowing imitative lines and solemn pacing. Gerrard’s O Souverain Pastor est maistre is a deft display of canonic writing, while his Tua est Potentia employs pervasive imitation. There is relatively little by Gerrard that has been recorded, which is a pity: he is a fine composer.
Works by more famous composers include Tallis’s covertly recusant motet In jejunio et fletu, in a particularly moving performance, and a delicately shaded Derelinquit impius. William Byrd is represented by two motets, Domine, salva nos, its introductory homophonic passages tinged with chromaticism and succeeded by elegant imitative entries, and Fac cum servo tuo, which instead begins in canon straightaway.
The recording’s closer is a contemporary piece written in response to Spem in Alium, Vidi Aquam, a forty-part motet by James MacMillan. Using small paraphrases of the Tallis piece interwoven with new material, MacMillan creates an exuberant composition filled with an abundance of stratospheric ascending lines. it is a thrilling, and tremendously challenging, companion work.
Harbour, a recital recording of Anna Höstman’s piano works played by Cheryl Duvall, reveals an emerging composer who both synthesizes her research interests – she has written about Feldman and Linda Caitlin Smith – while developing a significant voice of her own. Thus, gradually developing fields of sound remind listeners of the aforementioned composers, but Höstman’s gestural palette is significantly different. Examples of this include the ornaments on “Allemande” and the blurring gestures of “Yellow Bird.”
The title piece is a twenty-five minute long essay that begins with flourishes that remind one of Messiaen’s birdsong, as well as gliss-filled descending lines, set against a slow moving series of polychords. Registral expansion affords these three elements considerable latitude and points of intersection. The verticals take on a reiterated ostinato that alternates with linear duos and the glissandos, allowing for the music to gradually grow more emphatic in demeanor. There is a long-term crescendo that allows for these elements to take on a certain bravura that transforms them, at least for the moment, into emphatic post-Romantic material. However, the sound soon scales back and Harbour returns to a quietly mysterious space.
Pianist Cheryl Duvall is an excellent advocate throughout, bringing a graceful touch and finely detailed shadings of dynamics and voicing to the music. Composer and pianist seem to be an ideal pairing on this consistently engaging release.
I was fortunate to hear the US premiere at New York’s Weill Recital Hall by Ralph van Raat of Pierre Boulez’s early work Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo (1944). Composed when he was just nineteen, the piece is a substantial one, twenty-seven minutes long. Unlike Boulez’s works from 1945 onward, as is evidenced by a recording here of 12 Notations from that year, the piece predates his fascination with Webern and total serialism, instead seeking a rapprochement between tradition and Schoenbergian dissonant harmonies. Van Raat’s recording of the work for Naxos is authoritative, details large and small shaped with impressive care and bold playing.
“Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo” serves as the centerpiece of the French Piano Rarities recording, but it is accompanied by fascinating fare. In addition to the aforementioned, a late Boulez piece, Une page d’éphéméride, is also included, resembling late Stravinsky in its use of small repeating collections in post-tonal fashion. Olivier Messiaen is represented by three pieces, Morceau de lecture á vue from 1934, with strong polychordal verticals, two movements from the piano version of Des canyons aux étoiles…, filled with birdsong and color chords, and La Fauvette passerinette from 1961, a rapid birdsong essay.
Three earlier works by French masters are included: a gently ephemeral Menuet from mid-career Maurice Ravel, and two late pieces by Claude Debussy: Étude retrouvée and Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon. They all prove that, past the well-worn selections one frequently hears on recitals, there are many underserved pieces that hardly deserve to be “rarities.”
Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), Russell Rolen (cello)
Experiments in Living
New Focus Records (digital release)
The Spektral Quartet takes advantage of the open-ended playing time of a digital release to create effectively a double album for their latest recording, Experiments in Living. While double albums often suffer from a bit of flab, this one doesn’t have an extraneous moment. It is a well curated release that attends to meaning making in contemporary music with a spirit that is both historically informed and deeply of this moment.
A clever extra-musical addition to the project is a group of Tarot cards that allow the listener to ‘choose their own adventure,’ making their way through the various pieces in different orderings. These are made by the artist/musician øjeRum. The tarot cards may be seen on the album’s site.
It might seem strange to begin an album of 20/21 music with Johannes Brahms’s String Quartet Op. 51, no. 1 in C-minor (1873). However, Arnold Schoenberg’s article “Brahms as Progressive” makes the connection between the two composers clear. It also demonstrates Spektral’s comfort in the standard repertoire. They give an energetic reading of the quartet with clear delineation of its thematic transformations, a Brahms hallmark.
Schoenberg is represented by his Third String Quartet (1927). His first quartet to use 12-tone procedures, it gets less love in the literature than the oft-analyzed combinatorics of the composer’s Fourth String Quartet, but its expressive bite still retains vitality over ninety years later. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (1931), an under-heralded masterpiece of the 20th century, receives one of the best recordings yet on disc, its expressive dissonant counterpoint rendered with biting vividness.
Sam Pluta’s Flow State/Joy State is filled with flurries of glissandos, microtones, and harmonics to create a thoroughly contemporary sound world punctuated by dissonant verticals. One of Pluta’s most memorable gestures employs multiple glissandos to gradually make a chord cohere, only to have subsequent music skitter away. Charmaine Lee’s Spinals incorporates her own voice, replete with lip trills and sprechstimme that are imitated by string pizzicato and, again, glissandos.
Spektral is joined by flutist Claire Chase on Anthony Cheung’s “Real Book of Fake Tunes,” which combines all manner of effects for Chase with jazzy snips of melody and writing for quartet that is somewhat reminiscent of the techniques found in the Schoenberg, but with a less pervasively dissonant palette. Cheung’s writing for instruments is always elegantly wrought, and Chase and Spektral undertake an excellent collaboration. One could imagine an entire album for this quintet being an engaging listen.
The recording’s title track is George Lewis’s String Quartet 1.5; he wrote a prior piece utilizing quartet but considers this his first large-scale work in the genre. Many of the techniques on display in Pluta’s piece play a role here as well. Lewis adds to these skittering gestures, glissandos, and microtones the frequent use of various levels of bow pressure, including extreme bow pressure in which noise is more present than pitch. The latter crunchy sounds provide rhythmic weight and accentuation that offsets the sliding tones. Dovetailing glissandos create a blurring effect in which harmonic fields morph seamlessly. The formal design of the piece is intricate yet well-balanced. More string quartets, labeled 2.5 and 3.5, are further contributions by Lewis to the genre. One hopes that Spektral will take them up as well – their playing of 1.5 is most persuasive.
Ashlee Mack has just posted a performance video of my Bagatelle for Solo Piano. It is one in a set of three, the others being for alto flute and then a duo for alto flute and piano. You can stream or purchase a studio recording of the whole set via the Bandcamp embed below.
Sophie Schatleitner, violin; Lorelei Dowling, bassoon;
Klangform Wien, Stefan Asbury and Peter Rundel, conductors
Kairos CD 00140220KAI
Composer Liza Lim’s creative projects have long embraced a variety of ecomusicology. The environment in her home country Australia and the treatment of indigenous peoples there have featured in several works. 2018’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus casts an even broader net, addressing concerns of climate change worldwide. Scientific studies assessing projected extinction of flora and fauna due to the impact of the climate change disaster suggest that, unless humanity changes its ways quickly, a vast number of creatures vital to the ecosystem will no longer remain.
Narrative in instrumental music is an elusive business. However, like John Luther Adams and R. Murray Schafer, Lim is adroit at creating aural imagery that is evocative of environmental subject matter. Rain sticks, air-filled noises, and terse, insectile solos provide a sense of place and population to the piece. Baying brass announce movement breaks with poignant glissandos. The third movement, Autocorrect, features fluid solos by violinist Sophie Schatleitner offset by microtonal bends in the brass and flourishes from winds and percussion. During Dawn Chorus, the last movement, extended woodwind drones and terse sepulchral lines provide a slow-moving, harmonics filled background.
Especially impressive is the 2013 solo bassoon piece Axis Mundi, which is performed by Lorelei Dowling. Angular lines and glissandos that frequently fade are set against boisterous trills and blatting bass notes. It parses the piece into clear registral areas to create post-tonal and timbrally enhanced counterpoint that allows the disparate parts of the piece to cohere.
Songs Found in a Dream uses a similar palette as Extinction Events, feeling something like a more boisterous sketch for the larger work. However, Songs’ quicker pacing and frequently saturated textures distinguish it from the latter piece. On both works, Klangforum Wien creates supple, nuanced, and, where necessary, powerful performances. The Kairos CD sounds excellent, with a strong feeling of dimensionality among the various parts of the ensemble. Highly recommended.
In recent years, the prominence of Icelandic composers on the international stage has grown considerably, many of them championed by the Sono Luminus label. New discs on the imprint are portraits of two more composers whose careers are in ascent: Páll Ragnar Pálsson (b. 1977) and Halldór Smárason (b. 1989). They are abetted by some of Iceland’s finest chamber musicians, the Siggi String Quartet and CAPUT Ensemble.
This is Pálsson’s second solo CD, consisting of works written from 2011 to 2018. He has a varied background. In his twenties he was a rock musician and then took an extended sojourn for studies in Estonia. Atonement encompasses those experiences and is also about the composer’s return to Iceland after his time abroad. Pálsson says that the importance of place is a significant touchstone for his approach to composing.
Relationships also play a pivotal role in his work. The abundantly talented soprano Tui Hirv is Pálsson’s spouse. She features prominently in several pieces, singing minute shadings and sustained high passages with tremendous dynamic control and expressivity in the title work. On Stalker’s Monologue, singing a text adapted from the Tarkovsky film, Hirv demonstrates more vocal steel and the accompaniment takes on a bleary-eyed cast. Midsummer’s Night features recited text instead of singing, with a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.
The CAPUT Ensemble acquits themselves admirably as well. Lucidity features the ensemble crafting microtonal shadings and exaggerated trills, the latter sometimes doubled in strings and winds to kaleidoscopic effect and punctuated by swells of percussion. The extended ensemble passages on Wheel Crosses Under Moss are an excellent response to the keening part sung by Hirv.
Smárason’s debut solo CD features the Siggi String Quartet. The title work is a good example of the composer’s aesthetic. Spacious use of silence is complemented by long sustained notes that generally have an “edge to them,” in terms of dissonance or playing technique. The quartet are dispatched on a similar errand on the piece Draw and Play, but the gestures between the rests are more animated. Blakta, also for strings, features gentle pizzicato against harmonics and upper register pileups of verticals.
A guitar and electronics piece, Skúlptúr 1, requires the performer, Gulli Björnsson, to make his way through a challenging hop scotch of techniques in a specified time frame in order to avoid an alarm from the electronics part. Happily he makes it on the recording.
The best piece on Stara is also the one for the largest ensemble, Stop Breathing. The Siggi Quartet is augmented with bass flute, clarinet, and piano. Breathy whorls and wind glissandos are set against harmonic ostinato passages as well as aggressive squalls of sound.
A number of current composers are concerned with silence and pianissimo stretches. On Stara, Smárason distinguishes himself by filling in the silence with music of an uneasy demeanor from which one receives little respite or release. His work is unerringly paced and delicately unnerving. Both Atonement and Stara contain excellent performances of provoking works: recommended.
On Friday, Andy Kozar released A Few Kites, a trumpet and electronics solo album on New Focus Recordings. It features works by Paula Matthusen, Ken Ueno, Scott Worthington, Eve Beglarian, and others. A plethora of extended techniques, including deconstructing the instrument itself, are pitted against imaginative electroacoustic vistas. Recommended.
Pianist Philip Thomas is a prolific artist. A member of Apartment House, he recently participated in their recording of Ryoko Akama’s compositions for Another Timbre. Also on Another Timbre is Thomas’s gargantuan CD set of piano music by Morton Feldman, which includes several previously unreleased pieces.
Two of the pianist’s other recent projects focus on other members of the New York School. His deep dive into Cage’s Concert for Piano (again with Apartment House) has resulted in a book, recording, and an interactive online project, Cageconcert (cageconcert.org) that also includes apps to work with segments of the piece and make one’s own versions. He has also released a recording of Christian Wolff’s piano music. Finally, Thomas has recorded a CD of composer-pianist Chris Burn’s work, including transcriptions of improvisations by the late guitarist (and author of one of the key books on improvisation) Derek Bailey. As the interview below demonstrates, Thomas’s performance and recording schedule shows no signs of let-up. (Note: Philip and I talked before the pandemic, so some of his future projects are now TBA).
How did you and
Martin Iddon come to collaborate on a book about Cage’s Concert for Piano
(1957-’58)? Were the book and recording in process before the website and apps
were conceived or was the idea of multiple presentations part of the initial
This goes back a long
way! I had it in my thoughts that, having performed the piece a number of
times, with Apartment House but also with others, including the Merce
Cunningham Dance Company for the dance ‘Antic Meet’, it was a far richer piece
than had perhaps history had credited it. It’s such a well-known piece, not
least from its visual appearance, and its historic performance value has
influenced what we think of as a Cage-ian performance practice. Plus the
premiere performance and recording is notorious from its depiction on the
Twenty-Fifth Retrospective Concert album. But I felt strongly that there was
much that is not more widely known when digging a little deeper, both about the
way it can be performed, about the graphic notations of the ‘Solo for Piano’,
and about the instrumental and conductor parts. And I was aware that
performance as both historical and contemporary practice has a lot to say about
the music, not least because of the unusually long time one has to spend with
the piano part in order to arrive at something which is playable. So I set to
thinking about this as a major research project and immediately thought of
Martin as being an ideal collaborator, particularly due to his brilliant book
about Cage and Tudor, as well as his Darmstadt book. So over lunch in London
one day we dreamt up the project, which over the following year developed and
formed to include the book, the website and apps, as well as the involvement of
Apartment House. Then there was the inevitable long wait until we found out our
grant application was successful. The grant was for a 3-year project but
inevitably aspects of that spill over into the months since – and I’ve just now
finished the index for the book! The apps grew from a simple idea that we
thought might be nice to a far more complex concept than any of us could have
imagined, forming a vital part of the project. The team expanded to include two
research assistants, Emily Payne and Chris Melen – Chris being the developer of
the Solo for Piano app – with additional help from others, including Stuart
Mellor who designed the Concert Player app.
As a pianist who
specializes in experimental music, Concert for Piano seems like a natural work
to explore from multiple vantage points. When did you first become acquainted
with the piece, and what does it mean to you as an interpreter?
I’ve mostly played it
with Apartment House. I think possibly the earliest occasion was in 2008 when I
organised a 50th anniversary concert
of the 25-year retrospective concert. My experience then was as it continues to
be, that this is an exceptionally rich and lively piece, full of surprises, and
one which is a total joy to perform – each moment is alive and fresh, and my
experience as a performer is of being part of music being made, rather than
something which is ‘re-played’. We don’t rehearse, everyone works on their own
materials, and then it’s put together, so for everyone playing the experience
is as new as it is for the audience. This is true of many pieces by Cage of
course, but this piece seems to heighten those senses and the material is so
exaggerated in its range here – noises, pitches, highs and lows, louds and
The website and apps
provided detailed and varied material from Concert. Will you share with us some
of the features you consider to be highlights?
There’s so much
there, a few of my favourite things include:
Apartment House – I love to hear the musicians of Apartment House talk about
what they do. These interviews are brimming with insight. I especially like the
films which combine their different insights, such as the ‘Performing the
film and the last 10 minutes of the conductor film.
Watching the films of
our performances of the ‘Concert’ and also Christian Wolff’s ‘Resistance’ is a particular
thrill, because, as I suggested above, there’s so much unknown in the
performance itself that it’s great to get a stronger sense of the kinds of
things the other musicians are doing.
This one is not yet
on the website but will be appearing very soon – I have made a studio recording
of the complete ‘Solo for Piano’, which has never been done. It’s completely
different from the version I play with Apartment House – for this I recorded
each notation individually, according to a space time measurement of 3 minutes
per page, and then Alex Bonney has mapped them together like a patchwork quilt,
to get a complete 3 hours and 9 minutes performance of the Solo. You can hear
it now actually on the Concert Player app as it’s this recording which we use
for the app.
For the uninitiated person
finding this on the web, what do you think they apps will demonstrate to them?
I hope firstly that
it’ll just be a great entry into the music – that this is music people play and
love to play, and is really great to play, instead of perhaps either that it is
too ‘far-out’ or obfuscatory, or, the flip-side, that it is entirely open and
‘free’! For users trying out the Solo for Piano app, I hope it’ll both be a
great way of playing with the notations and their conditions for performance,
to see what might be possible and conversely what is not possible with each,
and to play with the multiple possibilities the notation offers; and that it
will also be an aid to performance. Of course each pianist will want to try it
out in their own way, but at the least I hope that for some notations this will
be a time-saver, offering possibilities to randomly generate multiple outcomes
and to print them off in usable formats. An obvious criticism of the app is
that it removes the fun of working these things out yourself – I think it
manages to keep the fun of playing with each notation, whilst cutting down on
the work needed to write these things out. And we’ve been careful to always
show where and how we’ve made interpretative decision when others might make
other choices, so it’s clear that this is both a facility AND an
And then the Concert
player app is simply a delight to hear – there are 16,383 possible instrumental
combinations of this piece, and we have a handful of recordings available.
Clearly, a recording of a work such as this can only hint at the slightest
possibility of how this piece may sound. But the app allows users to randomly
generate or select combinations, plus select pages, their durations, their
sequence, and then hear how that might sound. We’ve taken great care to ensure
the space-time properties of the music are upheld (measuring by the pixel!) and
so really this is a pretty accurate – no matter how inappropriate that word is
to this piece!! – realisation. I still listen to it regularly and am surprised
all the time by the combinations. It’s a thrill, so I hope people will just
You have been
performing Morton Feldman’s music for over a quarter century. Still, the
recording you did for Another Timbre last year was a mammoth undertaking. How
long did it take to record? How do you keep so much detailed, long repertoire,
with irregular repetitions, in your brain and fingers?
Somehow it didn’t
feel like a mammoth task, more like a real pleasure to play these pieces again.
Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t feel any kind of pressure to give a ‘definitive’
statement on the music – my performances on disc just happen to be a
representation of how I play this music today, after many years of thinking
about and playing it. If I were to record it all again in 10 years it may be
quite different, who knows? It was though a particular pleasure to discover a
few pieces that I hadn’t played before, namely the unpublished works I explored
at the Sacher Foundation in Basel, and the transcription I made of the Lipton
I recorded the music
over a period of about 2 years, in different sessions. It’s funny how the music
at times just sticks in terms of fingering, rhythmic detail, whilst at other
times what should be very familiar to me still seems strange. Certainly,
whereas I thought this project might draw a line in the sand for me – no more
Feldman! – I feel it’s done the opposite, opened up more possibilities, more
ways of thinking about the music. In particular, Triadic Memories, which
I’ve probably played more often than any other single piece of music, changed a
great deal for me in preparation for the recording and what I thought I knew
now feels more experimental, more curious, than ever. There’s a part of me that
sometimes tries to avoid Feldman’s music – it’s almost too gorgeous at times,
and I need to find something else, something of rougher hue, but those chords
keep pulling me back! Thankfully, there’s so much more to the music than just
beautiful sonorities, and in particular the music’s form and narrative feels to
me to be so strikingly original.
Are there surprises
among the previously unrecorded pieces?
addition of struck drum and glass to the Feldman sound is pretty surprising,
bringing to mind much more the 1940s music by Cage, and here included as part
of a set of three pieces composed for the dance. In fact there’s a surprising
number of pieces composed for dance collaborations, not just for Cunningham,
but also for Merle Mersicano, as Ryan Dohoney has written about in considerable
detail recently. One of these is Figure of Memory which sounds nothing like
Feldman and more like some kind of sketch of a Satie piece, consisting simply
of repetitions of three short phrases.
release is of music by Chris Burn, including a transcription of an
improvisation by Derek Bailey. How does that translate to the piano?
Well Chris is a
wonderful wonderful composer, and a brilliant pianist and improviser. And so he
is fully aware of the slightly perverse nature of what he was doing in writing
these pieces, not least as someone who used to play with Bailey. But these
pieces are not just really lovely pieces of music, but they also reveal
something about Chris and how he hears and thinks of music, as well as being
revealing of Bailey’s own work, and in particular of his love of Webern and his
close attention to pitch. So when the guitar-ness of the pieces is removed a
different side to Bailey’s music is revealed which is simply different but to
my ears no less remarkable.
As if 2019 weren’t
busy enough for you, a compendium of Christian Wolff’s piano music was released
on Sub Rosa. In the notes you say that “In all my performances of Wolff’s
music, I aim for interpretations that both interest and surprise me, allowing
the notations to lead me to new ways of playing and thinking about music,
the same time trying
to lead the notations toward the unexpected.” When discussing the piano music
with Wolff, what were some insights he offered? What piece will most likely
The recent double
disc follows on from an earlier three-disc set, and hopefully precedes another
three-disc set to follow. Christian’s music is, when it comes down to it, the
music I feel closest to. I love the potential for change, for surprise, for
play. On the whole I tend not to ‘collaborate’ with composers (I trust them to
do what they do well and then it’s over to me) and so I love the moment when I
begin a new piece, I put it up on the piano and I start to think ‘ok so what am
I going to do with this’. This is where I am at my most creative, and
Christian’s music works especially well to that effect. I’ve never asked him
for his approval of what I do and most often he doesn’t hear my interpretations
until after I’ve performed or recorded it. Though the very first time we met,
in 2002, I played ‘Bread and Roses’ to him, waited for his response, and learnt
fairly quickly that his typical response was ‘Sure!’. He tends not to validate
not to denigrate peoples’ performances of his music and I appreciate that. He
doesn’t want to say ‘yes, this is how it should be played’ preferring instead
for the individuality of the player to find new solutions, new ways of playing.
And so I do hope with each performance I give of his music that I might offer
something that would surprise him, that might suggest possibilities in his
music which he’d not considered.
In this recent set
I’ve included a few pieces which are not published, so that surprised him too!
So three variations on Satie, pieces he composed for John Tilbury, which he
never quite convinced himself as worth publishing but hopefully he’s convinced
now they’re out on disc – they’re wonderfully eccentric pieces. Also his
Incidental Music, which he has played and recorded (wonderfully, on Mode) but
which he’d not heard anyone else perform. He was delighted, so that’s great.
And for anyone familiar with Wolff’s music I hope that my playing brings both
recognition and surprise too.
What will be your
next recording/recital? What will Apartment House be up to in 2020?
Next concert, in Cambridge in April, features a brand-new piece that Toronto-based composer Allison Cameron is writing for me, which I’m delighted about. And Simon Reynell’s always dreaming up new ideas and introducing me to younger composers and I’m always happy to play a small part in that project. And as a result of the Feldman release we’ve been able to commission one of my very favourite composers, Martin Arnold, to write a large-scale new piece for me. But that won’t be for a while. Lots of ideas, lots of pieces I want to play, but actually I’m hoping for a bit of a quieter year this year!
Carey is a composer, performer, musicologist, and writer. His work has been
published in Perspectives of New Music, Intégral, Open Space, Tempo, Musical
America, Time Out New York, Signal to Noise, Early Music America, Sequenza 21,
Pop Matters, All About Jazz, and NewMusicBox. Carey’s research on
narrativity in late music by Elliott Carter, presented at IRCAM in Paris on the
composer’s 100th birthday, appears in Hommage à Elliott Carter (Editions
Delatour). He is Associate Professor of Composition, History, and Theory at
Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey.
Sequentia Cyclica – Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis
Jonathan Powell, piano
Piano Classics PCL10206 (7 CD boxed set; digital)
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) was the composer of some of Western classical music’s most intricate, extended, and ambitiously virtuosic works to date. His output encompassed seven decades, from 1914-1984. The serial composer Milton Babbitt, often himself described as the creator of tremendously difficult pieces, ranked Sorabji, alongside Brian Ferneyhough, as the most complex composers of the Twentieth century (Talking Music, William Duckworth). This is not just due to the massive scope of the pieces – several last a number of hours in duration – nor to their formidable technical demands, although both of these aspects of Sorabji’s music are ubiquitous. The notation of the music poses challenges as well. It is a welter of corruscating counterpoint and its rhythmic shapes are seldom delineated with bar-lines; nor do their gestures readily suggest metricity. Dynamics and tempo indications are infrequent and the music is often laid out on several staves. Thus, a lot is left open to interpretation.
Despite these challenges, Sorabji’s music is being documented by stalwart performers. Happily, a performance practice for the music is taking root that is helping to clarify some of the aforementioned difficulties. Noteworthy among these interpreters is the English pianist Jonathan Powell, who has championed the composer for over two decades. He has taken a number of Sorabji’s works in manuscript and transcribed them into performing editions, toured them widely, and begun the challenging task of creating recorded documentation of the piano oeuvre. His most recent project has been Sequentia Cyclica, a piece lasting nearly eight hours that he has presented in marathon single-day concerts in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. Piano Classics has released a seven-CD boxed set of Powell’s rendition of the piece. It is an extraordinary recording of a totemic work.
Sequentia Cyclica (subtitled Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis) is a set of twenty-seven variations on the Dies Irae sequence from the Catholic liturgy of the Mass for the Dead. Composed sometime in the thirteenth century, the Dies Irae has taken on extra-liturgical significance through its use in a number of concert works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most famously in the Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, but also in a plethora of other piece including ones by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, and Dallapiccola. Sorabji’s employment of the theme serves multiple ends. It gives a nod to its presence in works by predecessors, particularly in Rachmaninoff’s piano music, it serves as a contrapuntal motive that is treated with a near-encyclopedic array of variants, and, judged by the voluble praise-filled postscript appended to the work, as an object of Christian devotion. Sorabji made an initial (201-page long!) pass at a set of Dies Irae variations in the 1920s. They were to be dedicated to the recently departed composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, but the piece was withdrawn in favor of the 1949 version recorded here, dedicated to Busoni’s pupil the pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962).
True, eight hours is a long time to fill with a very familiar melody, but Sorabji creates a startling array of presentations, sometimes only employing the head motive and at other times the entire sequence. Elsewhere, it is submerged in other material, only to triumphantly rise up when called to the surface. Character pieces such as Hispanica, Marcia Funebre, and Quasi Debussy demonstrate imaginative deployments of the sequence in myriad styles. Trying to play “spot the influences” will provide the listener with glimpses at a panoply of creators, including Busoni, Liszt, Alkan, Debussy, Beethoven, Bach, Messiaen, and Rachmaninoff, to supply just a partial listing. None of these reference points is overarching; it is remarkable how adroitly Sorabji distills their essence into his own distinctive language. An enormous passacaglia with 100 variations takes up a disc-and-a-half worth of the recording and the piece concludes with an eighty-minute long fugue that successively builds from two-voice counterpoint to six, followed by a stretto on steroids that rousingly concludes this magnum opus.
Jonathan Powell’s traversal of Sequentia Cyclica is authoritative. The program notes are some of the finest I have read in a long while. His performance is deftly nuanced, technically assured, and powerfully rendered. It is a benchmark that will provide a tough act for future interpreters to follow, but hopefully his performance editions will encourage them to do so regardless. Powell’s dedicated work on behalf of Sorabji makes the composer’s legacy seem assured.
(Those looking for a more theoretical explication of Sequentia Cyclica are directed to Andrew Mead’s excellent article Gradus ad Sorabji in the Winter 2016 issue of Perspectives of New Music).