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Kaikhosru SORABJI (1892-1988)
Transcendental Studies Nos 84-100 (1940-44)
Fredrik UllÚn (piano)
Rec. June 2018, May and December 2019, Aula Medica, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
BIS BIS-2433 [45:23 + 72:35]

And so, after some seventeen years, the piano savant (and cognitive neuroscientist) Fredrik UllÚn reaches the end of his survey of K.S. Sorabji’s cycle of 100 Transcendental Studies for BIS. Rob Barnett has reviewed the previous five discs; for those readers who would appreciate a catch-up, I attach the links as follows: Nos 1-25, Nos 26-43, Nos 44-62, Nos 63-71 and Nos 72-83. The entire sequence clocks in at 504 minutes – a mere minute or so longer than another discomnockerating Sorabji recording that’s turned up on disc in the last twelve months, Jonathan Powell’s tendon-sapping account of Sequentia Cyclica on Piano Classics which was warmly welcomed by Jonathan Woolf last April (review). My wife bought me that set for my birthday – I played it straight through on what would have been Cup Final Saturday had there not been a lockdown. To say that the experience represented a psychological challenge (and required litres of caffeine) is something of an understatement – indeed I spent the next day listening to an assortment of late 70s punk albums by way of an antidote. It’s not an undertaking I’m likely to repeat anytime soon, and it’s something of a relief to turn instead to Sorabji’s studies – in relative terms they are (far from mere) bagatelles - most after all are done and dusted in less than five minutes.

Most. Not all….

I certainly wouldn’t want readers to think that I don’t respond to this composer’s oeuvre. On the contrary – what emerges during any half-hour period spent in the company of Sorabji is just how elegant/clever/mosaic-like/brilliantly organised/superbly crafted/exciting/unique his music is. I cannot help but wonder if there’s any single ideal way to approach his work as a listener – there’s plenty of material around the web (and in the booklets accompanying the plethora of Sorabji discs now available) which describe how performers approach and consume it; to enthusiastic collectors like myself however, the sheer monumentality of the bigger pieces is as intimidating in reality as it seems in the printed score.

In prepping this review I visited one of Fredrik UllÚn’s websites; in fact I logged into his site at the Karolinska Instiute where he is an eminent force – indeed the name of the UllÚn Laboratory there provides a clue as to his rarified academic status. As a psychology tutor (working primarily with sixth form students and undergraduates), I was naturally interested to discover his main research interests. Nor was I disappointed; his major preoccupation seems to be ‘the neuropsychology of musical expertise’ a niche which has facilitated the UllÚn Laboratory team’s recently published papers. Among these are investigations into the respective roles of nature and nurture among young musicians, a study using (fMRI) brain scans which seeks to identify the brain areas most active during musical improvisation, and research investigating the effects of music practise on actual musical ability among a sample of 10,000 Swedish twins. It’s profoundly engrossing stuff, for sure.

As a distant observer, I suspect these academic pursuits might well explain UllÚn’s enthusiasm for playing (and recording) the music of maverick complicators like Sorabji and George Flynn (to name just two examples). These guys have produced reams of piano music which frankly looks impossible to play with precision, yet to an experienced listener the grace and sophistication one consistently encounters aurally in this pianist’s thrilling accounts of Sorabji’s Transcendental Studies really does leap out of the speakers. Having grappled intermittently with Sorabji’s larger scale works (Both Ogdon’s and Madge’s accounts of the Opus Clavicembalisticum as well as the Sequentia Cyclica) I am led to ask: is the relative accessibility of the studies down to their brevity (in most cases), Sorabji’s arrangement of his materials, or UllÚn’s fastidious preparation and lucid execution? One suspects the music appeals equally to the performer’s musical and neuroscientific sides; this particular corpus of Sorabji’s work certainly provides UllÚn with an unique opportunity to explore first-hand the extent of the music’s playability, memorability, attractiveness and logic. One speculates what the Karolinska Institute’s overworked fMRI scanning devices might have uncovered about UllÚn’s active brain regions while he’s practising or playing or recording these pieces. Given that this final volume in the series was recorded at the Institute itself, one is tempted to wonder whether his team might actually have been investigating this! In any case, the Aula Medica turns out to project an ideal ambience in which Sorabji’s dense polyphonic schemes can be best appreciated, or at the very least acknowledged.

The most complex of the fifteen studies on the first disc is No 84 which opens it, a twisting, convoluted and invigorating Tango Habanera. It truly comes to life only after a few plays; the first time I listened it seemed vaguely Iberian and gawkily stop-start, a sunny meander through an impenetrable thicket of gestural cul-de-sacs. Familiarity reveals a trove of delights; a forensically arranged kaleidoscope of cleverly linked motifs and related ideas which seems to fade into the sunset at 7:29 before UllÚn apparently finds another 15 fingers from a cupboard in his lab to navigate a seemingly unplayable coda; this resembles a melange of Nancarrow, Ives and Billy Mayerl. The Tango is an exhilarating, almost jolly work; in the context of the seventeen studies on this pair of discs it’s extended sufficiently to allow those of us who find Sorabji rather daunting to make some sense of his architectural devices over an elongated yet digestible span.

There then follow fourteen brief studies which range in duration between 50 and 250 seconds. Each is remarkable in its own way. Highlights include No 85 a rapid, Prokofievian toccata which threatens to turn into a march. Its successor flows teasingly, gently and hauntingly towards nowhere in particular. No. 87, Studio gammatico is an unforgiving (for the pianist) scalar exercise whose fantastical spirallings might amount to the sonic equivalent of one of the busier of MC Escher’s ‘impossible’ paintings. No 89 is entitled Chopsticks; it’s obviously meant to be playful and I suspect the original tune is in there somewhere. No 91, marked takes a staccato Webernian fragment and moulds it into a delightfully suave confection. Nos 92, 94 and 96 are gentle, crepuscular nocturnes which really do linger in the memory. The latter is especially shimmering and accessible. No 98 is uncharacteristic of its bedfellows on this disc as it relies on the fierce insistence of Sorabji’s rapid homophonic chordal writing to make its blustering, demagogic point.

The last two studies can hardly be described in such conventional, diminutive terms. Sorabji labelled No 99 Quasi Fantasia and applied a subtitle which translates as In the Style of Johann Sebastian’s Chromatic Fantasy. As Fredrik UllÚn explains in his marvellously lucid, accessible and helpful booklet essay, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia (and Fugue) in D minor BWV 903 provides an inspiration only in terms of the improvisatory character of the bridging toccata and cadenza-like passages which dominate its sixteen minute span. The shape of its opening is certainly reminiscent of the Bach however. Critics often refer to ‘false endings’ at the end of big symphonies but over its entire duration my sense is that Sorabji’s Transcendental Study No 99 constitutes the ultimate ‘false beginning’ – an increasingly ornate and anticipatory preamble before the monolithic, gargantuan Fuga a cinque soggetti, the 100th and final ‘study’ which concludes the entire, monstrous shebang. If UllÚn’s performance of the sinew splitting 99th study is frequently jaw-dropping, it is nigh on impossible for the listeners such as myself to find the right adjectives for what follows. But one has to try…

No 100 kicks off in a deft, refined and utterly misleading fashion – Sorabji’s lissom part-writing evoking Shostakovich, if anyone. There are five themes in all (they’re styled ‘soggetti’ – subjects); these form the foundations upon which the entire edifice is built. Each is separately tracked which is most helpful as it enables the listener to keep up with Sorabji’s increasingly complex part-writing – the three voices of the Secondo soggetto sound bewildering at first hearing – but they’re child’s play compared to what follows. The Terzo soggetto seems mellower on the face of it but one becomes more aware of its miraculous intricacies with repeated hearings. I wonder if the shape of the initial theme of the Quarto soggetto will put other listeners in mind of the recitative theme of Schoenberg’s Variations for organ, Op 40? It has had that same effect on me each of the three occasions I have played this disc to date. The close weave of the subsequent material prevents the resilience of this detail, though. UllÚn’s patient, masterly building of tension over the course of this panel is unnoticeable on first encounter but seems more impressive and obvious with familiarity. The single notes at the outset of the Quinto soggetto fall gently like heavy raindrops – it’s as though UllÚn is taking two steps back to scan the peak before the final, brutal assault. Thus begins one of the most extraordinary half-hour spans of piano music I have ever heard. Again repeated exposure helps – although the unhurried progress of the Quinto soggetto is immediately immersive and absorbing, in terms of both Sorabji’s writing and UllÚn’s beguiling playing. This soggetto is the absolute sonic embodiment of measured anticipation. It leads to the final section of this epic, concluding tableau. Described as a Stretto maestrale, it doesn’t disappoint. In his note, UllÚn refers to its ‘informational overload’ and yet, for this listener at least there is identifiable order in its complexity, and its tangled procession constitutes some kind of hard-won inevitability. Or at least UllÚn, the consummate messenger, somehow manages to convey as much. To say it’s a neat trick completely undersells it. But it is – make no mistake.

In my view these last two studies are unexpectedly magnificent. There are individual works by Sorabji (the perfumed nocturne Gulistan is a notable example) which are more atmospheric and poetic, for sure. But the complete sequence of 100 Trancendental Studies provides the curious listener with a less daunting route into the fastidious logic of his more formally defined music. It is quite impossible to imagine these wonderful pieces being more assiduously prepared, played or recorded. I note that BIS have chosen not to over-complicate the sound on this issue by providing a surround option – in this case that strikes me as an eminently wise decision. I believe that even the last two gargantuan studies benefit from the intimacy offered by decent two channel sound, and the BIS stereo is unbeatable.

Quite apart from his magisterial playing, Fredrik UllÚn contributes a wonderfully precise written introduction which will help the wariest punter navigate this challenging, yet profoundly rewarding repertoire. The booklet is completed with fascinating essays from two eminent Sorabji enthusiasts, the composer Alistair Hinton and the mathematician and logician Kenneth Derus. The entire package thus constitutes a suitably epic conclusion to a thoroughly worthwile and noble project.

Richard Hanlon

No 84 Tango habanera [9:03]
No 85 (untitled) [1:53]
No 86 Adagietto:Legatissimo [1:59]
No 87 Studio gammatico [2:59]
No 88 (untitled) [1:20]
No 89 Chopsticks. Vivace [1:31]
No 90 (untitled) [3:23]
No 91 Volante leggiero [2:52]
No 92 Legato possible. Velato, misterioso [2:17]
No 93 Leggiero saltando [2:12]
No 94 Ornaments. Con fantasia [4:10]
No 95 (untitled) [0:54]
No 96 (untitled) [3:32]
No 97 (untitled) [3:11]
No 98 Staccato e vivace [2:56]
No 99 Quasi Fantasia (Nello stilo della fantasia cromatica di Giovanni Sebastiano) [16:07]
No 100 Coda – Finale. Fuga a cinque soggetti [55:56]

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