For those who are familiar with him, Kaikhosru Shapurji
Sorabji (1892-1988) was primarily known as a composer
of extremely lengthy and difficult piano music. However,
his love of the human voice was encouraged and
nurtured by his soprano mother, thereby manifesting in
his earliest compositions of songs, which date from 1915.
Sorabji continued to write songs throughout his life, and
“Sorabji: The Complete Songs for Soprano” was
released on CD by the Centaur label in 2002. These
works differ from standard recital fare, as they require
virtuosic performances from both singer and accompanist.
Included with this 56-minute rarity were liner notes
featuring an essay by Sorabji archivist, Alistair Hinton,
wherein he noted that most of Sorabji’s songs were
scored for the soprano voice, with all but two of them
written for voice and piano. Hinton also discussed
Sorabji’s attraction to poetry from “…French Symbolists
and their English contemporaries, such as
Ernest Dowson…” (1867-1900). In fact, 17 of these songs
are set to French texts. The three remaining works are
two English songs and one vocalise. Aside from three
1941 songs set to texts by Paul-Marie Verlaine
(1844-1896) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867),
as well as the 1927 Baudelaire “L‘Irrémédiable,”
Sorabji completed the balance of these works
between 1915 and 1920.
Regardless of when they were written, the piano
parts feature Sorabji’s typically “pan-tonal” harmonic
palette. To name a few, I was reminded of works by
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), Nikolai Roslavets
(1881-1944), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and
Karel Szymanowski (1882-1937). The “hothouse”
atmosphere found in much of Sorabji’s music was on
full display, and fit the aforementioned
“fantasy-infused” texts like a glove.
The demanding vocal writing required vertiginous singing,
particularly in the upper range. In fact, Sorabji’s 1916
“Vocalise” seemed designed to showcase the
soprano’s vocal gymnastics. To my ears, it had the
most exotic sound of the group. Soprano
Elizabeth Farnum’s beautiful voice did justice to this
demanding repertoire, with scant evidence of strain
supported by a solid technique. I have yet to discover
any competing recordings of Sorabji’s songs; however,
I couldn’t help but imagine how soprano Dawn Upshaw
might fare with this music.
A fine pianist was essential to the performance of these
songs, and Margaret Kampmeier was just that, rising
to the fore when necessary, but never overpowering
Farnum. Their collaborative balance was also a
testament to the fine sound engineering on these
recordings, completed between 1999 and 2000.
Many believe that Sorabji’s works are bizarre and
strange; however, those familiar with French song
repertoire from the early 20th Century will not be
repelled by this music. To tell the truth, I believe
that it wouldn’t hurt most of us to hear these songs.
Sorabji was fascinating and unjustly marginalized
and if nothing else, this music could shed light on a
tiny, yet significant portion of Sorabji’s voluminous output.