By Frederick L. Kirshnit
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Interlude, Quintet #1 for Piano and Strings (world premiere), Trois Fetes Galantes de Verlaine, Piano Sonata #2, Pasticcio Capriccioso Sopra dello Chopin
Felicity La Fortune (soprano) Christopher Berg, Tellef Johnson, Michael Habermann (pianos), Marshall Coid, Lilit Gampel (violins), David Cerutti (viola), Christine Gummere (cello)
Even in an age of eccentricity Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji deserves pride of place. Born Leon Dudley in 1892, this Englishman with Parsi lineage is most noted, if at all, for his four hour piano composition Opus Clavicembalisticum, cited in the Guinness Book as the longest piano piece on record (it is actually not even the longest piano work that Sorabji composed). In many ways England's Charles Ives, Sorabji withdrew his revolutionary music from public performance in the 1920's and lived out his days in a Dorset castle, only occasionally allowing a performance of his piano music to the suitably reverent. Thus his Piano Quintet, written in 1920, received its world premiere at this innovative concert which also featured two US first time performances. The sonic universe of Sorabji is dense and mystical and the name that often comes to mind is Scriabin as demonstrated by the first item of the evening, a section of the much longer Prelude, Interlude and Fugue (1922), which relies on heavy pedaling to create its aural world of mystery. Christopher Berg, a composer himself and a frequent conductor in New York of contemporary music and opera, lovingly navigated these murky waters and then joined the pick-up string quartet for the main event of the performance, a work which only waited 78 years for a public hearing. The Piano Quintet is an extremely passionate work, reminiscent in its ardor of the well-known Franck, but composed in the idiom of Debussy. This piece achieves true pantonality, a concept often discussed but never actually realized by the contemporary Schoenberg. In Sorabji there is a constant shift from one key to another with no actual modulation, just a rapid-fire transformation. The resulting effect is unsettling in a manner that strikes at the heart of twentieth century music, the feeling of beauty immersed in the tragic, passion born out of the very process of change. There is no prettiness here; there is instead a search for truth and the journey itself, as in the middle piece in Schoenberg's Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11, not the arrival matters. Mr. Berg played the difficult piano part with seeming ease but the quartet was obviously not comfortable with each other as a unit and the performance was ultimately more disjointed than even the constant shifting of tonics would indicate. Still this was a significant event and may be written about in centuries to come as a major night in the acceptance of Sorabji's music to a dedicated public.
The Verlaine Songs are also imitative of Schoenberg, requiring a sprechstimme and an acting ability akin to Pierrot Lunaire. Ms. La Fortune was an inspired choice for these characterizations, as she is an accomplished actress in the bizarre medium of the television soap opera and possesses a rich and flexible coloratura soprano just right for these flights of fancy. Again Mr. Berg, the organizer of this singular event, was the flawless accompanist.
The highlight of the evening was the remarkable performance of the gargantuan (although Lilliputian by Sorabji standards) Piano Sonata #2 in one very long movement by a student pianist Tellef Johnson. The piece is a frustrating one for both performer and listener as it ultimately is a series of different sonatas all strung together and after the tenth false ending one is left experiencing more a feeling of irritation than expectation. Sorabji wrote over 11,000 pages of music but never knew when to quit (of course, he didn't really expect this music to be performed in public) but Mr. Johnson showed the amazing endurance of an athlete in the traversing of these difficult pieces masquerading as one work of art. Imagine playing six or seven of the Scriabin sonatas at one sitting without pause and you get a sense of the Herculean feat that is required for the presentation of this one movement. The work is so difficult that a page from it was reproduced in giant form above the stage and this at least gave one something to contemplate once the boredom set in. Brahms once remarked that composing was easy, the hard part was deciding which notes to throw under the table. Apparently Leon Dudley kept them all.
The most magical moment was when old Sorabji hand Michael Habermann emerged from the audience and cranked out a version of the mad Persian's variant on Chopin's Minute waltz. This piece was interesting for its performer who has devoted much of his performing life to this arcane composer and highly appreciated for its brevity. Sorabji is not for the lily-eared and the crowd seemed up to the task of a full evening's exploration into this remote cul-de-sac of music history but I don't predict a ready audience for a major revival of this music which relies on constant change and no development whatsoever. As with traditional Persian music the adherents are few and far-flung but thankfully they surface occasionally for a glimpse into the world of asil poetry and relative harmonics. A steady diet? No, but certainly an occasional meal to spice up one's thought and clean out one's ears.
Copyright ©1998 by Frederick L. Kirshnit, all rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission