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Jed Distler, October 2007

Although Kaikhosru Sorabji is best known for his marathon-length large-scale piano epics (Opus Clavicembalisticum and the Fourth Sonata, for example), I’ve always felt that his thick and fustian keyboard writing achieves greater impact, concision, and harmonic tension within the compass of his smaller works. These include the first 25 of the 100 Transcendental Studies, dating from 1940 to 1944. Each addresses a specific technical, textural, or rhythmic challenge, and the best ones can delight the listener as much as they daunt the performer.

Sorabji’s harmonic vocabulary offers many original touches (the sensuous Study in Fifths, No. 18, for instance), yet often reminds me of others. Listen to Study No. 8’s smoothly deployed thirds between the hands, and imagine how Godowsky might have re-written Debussy, although the quietly garish No. 4 isn’t quite so “Scriabinesco” as the composer’s subtitle implies. No. 10’s cascading arpeggios spurt Busoni’s polytonal streams at manic velocity, while No. 9 and No. 15’s jagged staccato and leggiero alterations foreshadow similar effects in Ligeti’s etudes. Likewise, No. 25’s punchy, dry repeated chords wouldn’t be out of place in a Conlon Nancarrow player-piano study.

Fredrik Ullén’s boundless technique, absolute comfort with the idiom, and astute sense of character not only make a compelling case for the studies but also set a standard for present and future Sorabji überpianists. Ullén provides pointed, imaginative booklet notes that accurately describe what goes on in the music. That’s more than you can say for Kenneth Derus’ pretentious purple poetry in the form of an utterly inchoate, mercifully brief opening essay.

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