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By no means the longest of Sorabji's works, the Opus Clavicembalisticum certainly is his most notorious. First performed in Glasgow in 1930 by the composer, himself a formidable pianist, it was not the dissonance in harmonies or terrifying virtuosity required from the performer that was to shock the music scene, but the sheer length of the piece.
Sorabji conceived Opus Clavicembalisticum to be about four- and three-quarter hours in length, so maybe he would turn in his grave to find that the performance Geoffrey Douglas Madge gives is a fraction under four hours. After all, Sorabji did declare a self imposed ban on the public performance of his works after a lesser pianist played a movement from the eponymous work too slowly.
So what about the performance? Well, Madge certainly considers the musical content more so than his recorded predecessor John Ogdon, who undoubtedly sight-read most of the thing. The sound is also good, albeit a bit warm and "fuzzy" giving the impression of over pedalling on the pianist's part.
Besides the less than top quality recorded sound, the pianism is of the highest calibre and this account should remain the bench mark for many years and many brave pianists to come.
About the music: I have a feeling I'm going to upset some die-hard Sorabji enthusiasts with my comments, but I'll call this like I see it.
To be honest: for the amount of thematic material presented, and the way Sorabji uses it, I think this piece is about ten movements too long. Opus Clavicembalisticum reminds me of compositions by pianistic "whiz kids" -- 17 and 18 year olds taking composition in their first year of college, who have the technique to play anything they want, and who don't hesitate to write the most daunting technical difficulties into their music -- but simply don't have the maturity to organize a large scale piece or to frame the musicality behind what it is they're writing! (I'm guilty of having done the same thing, too, when I attended the Indiana University School of Music 28 years ago.)
Sorabji certainly knows how to write "huge," but the material in this piece just doesn't warrant a four-hour composition. While listening to all the counterpoint, all the variations, all the extremes of register -- I found myself really aching to hear one good, cohesive slow movement! The lone "Adagio" wasn't REALLY an "Adagio."
There are 20th century composers whom I play, and whom I program regularly in my own recitals, who can write on very large scales - yet manage keep their musical thoughts organized. I think of Messiaen, Busoni, Hindemith -- even Shostakovich (if we consider the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87). These composers are able to take their ideas and develop them -- and most importantly, to CONTRAST their ideas as they develop them.
In the Opus Clavicembalisticum, Sorabji ends up with a dulling sameness -- which, unfortunately, lasts nearly four hours. Frankly, if I were going to play a Sorabji piece, I'd probably program a smaller-scale piece such as La Jardin Parfume.
Sorabji believed the Opus Clavicembalisticum to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, pieces of all time. It's an important piece -- if anything, just to study his techniques. For all its complexity, is not great music. It is absolutely not in the same league with Bach's "Goldberg Variations", Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" or the "Hammerklavier" sonata, Brahms' "Handel" or "Paganini" Variations, any Ravel work, the Busoni "Fantasia Contrapuntistica" or Hindemith's "Ludus Tonalis".
If you want to hear a wonderful performance of this piece, get the Madge. If you want to hear a piece LIKE this, composed by a real master, consider purchasing Messiaen's "Nativity of the Savior."
What I can comment on definatively is the performance. Sorabji is the Holy Grail of 20th century pianism. No other composer, before or after is as complex, dense or as demanding. (Not even Michael Finnessey who comes close.) Merely to play this piece in public is an act of enormous courage...or enormous hubris. So I respect the attempt of anyone to try.
In the current instance, BIS chose to record Madge in a live recital in Chicago, playing the OC in one program. The undertaking is heroic, but there are major problems with the results. Particularly on the first disc, Madge seems to have trouble with the material. There are many obvious flubbed notes and poorly executed passages. Though these mistakes subside as the work continues, they are present throughout the performance. As a result, many passages lack the power that they should have to make them come across in performance. Even passages that are clean tend to sound tenative...as if we can hear Madge praying not to make another mistake.
I am not sure that it is possible to play this music with complete accuracy in concert...so my complaints may not really lie with Madge. But BIS should at the least have done some post-production work on these notes. I know that this is difficult to do with live performances but it is not impossible. Perhaps BIS could have rented out the hall afterwards, without an audience and done the retakes needed to clean up the performance. (If anyone here believes that most classical studio performances are done in one take and clean...you haven't been in the studio.) Alternatively, with this music it would have been better to release a studio album. Though most listeners at a performance can forgive mistakes...and should up to a point, on a disc it is something else entirely.
All this being said, I still think that a serious music lover should know this work....particularly if you like Scriabin, or Busoni. The only other competition is John Ogden's set, which is harder to find. I have yet to hear this one, but will probably try to track it down. The work deserves to be heard in a really good performances.
Three Stars for the performance - the work it self is beyond praise or condemnation.