A towering and still-enigmatic achievement, the 'sine qua non' of all piano literature, Opus Clavicembalisticum, OC, a three-part solo piano epic, is a spell-binding work by one of history's most unusual composers. OC is not the longest piano work in existence; Sorabji himself wrote several longer, but so far, they have not been performed or recorded. At almost four hours, OC-one of those mysterious works that spurns clock time, making the mind adjust to its scale-consists of 12 movements evolving around a theme with 44 variations and a passacaglia with 81 variations. It is, as Nicholas Slonimsky says, "a brobdingnagian masterpiece." Its fugues, overstated to an impossible extent, are fantastically complex and its harmonies, in Sorabji's words, "bite like nitric acid." Of pristine counterpoint and arcane structures, OC has its own type of drama, not one built on jarring contrasts or abrupt tempo changes but one constructed with an astounding variety of tempo and textures, voluminous rhythmic combinations and ornamentation, all of which are introduced to the listener at Sorabji's unique pace. His compositional components change not over abrupt jumps in time, but through graduated gulfs. What Gertrude Stein said of writing-that paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not-applies to Sorabji's music monuments. Think of a kaleidoscope slowly revolving on a pedestal, slower than human fingers can turn it. What you see an hour later bears some resemblance to the original, but with different shades and different shapes. It is easier to remember the experience of this music than to analyze it while listening, which ought to be done in a single evening, but only at all if you want to give your heart and mind--not just your brain--a real workout.
Sorabji premiered Opus Clavicembalisticum, playing it for the first and last time, in 1930, dedicating it "to the everlasting glory of those few men blessed and sanctified in the curses and execrations of those many whose praise is eternal damnation." Only two pianists have essayed it since. Before Geoffrey Douglas Madge gave OC's second performance at Utrecht in 1982, subsequently released on LPs of indifferent sound, in one of his four concerts of this legendary work, it had not been performed in its entirety in more than 50 years. Its third performance, given by John Ogdon at South Bank in 1988, was complemented by a studio-recorded CD release by Altarus over which many Sorabji 'experts' sadly shake their heads. Although on five discs rather than four to avoid splitting up the Variations, Madge takes 50 minutes less than Ogdon. As it might be expected, their approaches are opposite, and any true lover of Sorabji cannot be without both. Although idiosyncratic, Ogdon's performance is of a grandiose and wildly daring romantic voluptuousness, transcending the work's deficiencies.
Yamaha had a special piano flown in from Tokyo for this recorded performance, the US premiere, which Madge gave in Chicago in 1983. Receiving rave reviews from critics, long admired by purists as possibly the most faithful rendering this work has had, this concert has since acquired mythic status. Many people complain about all the wrong notes in Madge's performance, but I dare anybody to point them out! Madge, over the years having assembled a repertoire of formidable modern works and technical powers as a pianist, both of which may very well be without equal, is an impressively accurate player of Sorabji's mind-bogglingly involved polyphony. Complex, mammoth, and phenomenal, in OC, there are stretches of intense manic complexity and magisterial poetry that cry out for a transcendental virtuosity which Madge provides in spades, and for this I give him my highest possible praise. He had me breathless with his complete mastery of this music that is all too often too difficult for comprehension.
Sorabji, viewing technique as a physical end to spiritual means, had a venomous contempt of people that allowed him, without guilt, to thrust his heinously difficult music into a realm of well nigh unperformablility. Although of huge and daunting proportions, his works tend to have a deep personal message behind it... This astounding interpretation, performed with grace, muscularity, and above all, extraordinary patience and care, this BIS set, very well recorded, with a crystal-clean-and-clear piano and virtually no audience noise (except the excruciating applause at conclusion), is self-recommending.