Modern music: Sorabji

Interest in Sorabji has maintained at a reasonable pace since this page was previously updated in 1998. A wider variety of recordings is available, both of more works and more interpreters. Sorabji wrote long and difficult music, primarily for piano solo. His extensive corpus of mature music is generally very contrapuntal and tonally centered within a structured chromaticism. He has also been famous for various pronouncements and criticisms, rounding out his musical personality in a fascinating way.

Sorabji's music has been called the most interesting contrapuntal keyboard music since Bach's, and it certainly includes a wide range of rhythms and chromatic structures, often with many simultaneous parts. Of course its strengths can also be its weaknesses, in that fugal themes are treated in 5- & 7-beat rhythms and the textures are usually very dense. It requires some extreme physical dexterity, perhaps permanently marginalizing its appreciation, but aside from this, it is clearly a unique pianistic output. Sorabji's exploration of texture is of interest to anyone involved in tonal counterpoint, and perhaps comparable to Messiaen or Nancarrow.

Although several other quality recordings exist now, the series by Jonathan Powell on Altarus has been of particular interest, not only for the number of releases, but also the quality of the playing. Although there is a wide range of music available, my favorite is probably the following:

Sorabji: Un nido di scatole / Djâmi / St. Bertrand de Comminges
Jonathan Powell
Altarus 9082

The simple fact is that, although I was open to listening to 4- or 5-hour pieces of music earlier in my life, it is an activity that does not fit me at this time. This makes it hard to enjoy Sorabji's more substantial, and very lengthy, pieces. Un nido di scatole on this recording is a set of variations from later in his output, and although it does not emphasize counterpoint the way his larger works often do, contains a good overview of his pianistic ideas.

Sorabji's most famous work, the huge Opus Clavicembalisticum, is one of his earliest (self-designated) mature works. In many ways, it is a massive elaboration and invigoration of Busoni's ideas in the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, and that work serves as a necessary introduction. The 4CD recording of O.C. by John Ogdon is quite an achievement (his recording of Busoni's F.C. is also of interest), although one could hardly hope for perfection on a first undertaking of this scale. It also comes with extensive and informative notes:

Sorabji: Opus Clavicembalisticum
John Ogdon
Altarus 9075 (4 CDs)

At this point, per my personal comments above, I list this item almost as a historical reference. Other recordings have also appeared since.

It is interesting to think back to circa 1990 when I was one of the few people expressing major interest in Sorabji's music on the internet. Since then, of course, many many more people have come online, and there are various sites which deal with music of this nature. This page is brief, like many of the other modern music pages here, having been created long after most of my own words had been written on the subject, but hopefully continues to serve some purpose.

To Sorabji Archive.

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Todd M. McComb
Updated: 30 November 2010