Sorabji Opus Clavicembalisticum BIS

Déjà Review: this review was first published in November 1999 and the recording is still available.

Kaikoshru Sorabji (1892-1988)
Opus Clavicembalisticum
Geoffrey Douglas Madge (piano) 
rec. live, 24 March 1983, Mandel Hall, Chicago. ADD
BIS BISCD1062/64 [5 CDs: 234]

Finally we have a great recording of this spellbinding piece back to the repertoire. Sorabji’s heinously difficult music is well-nigh unperformable, distinctly due to the composer’s attitude to society in general which created a series of complex and mammoth compositions that remain unrecorded. In fact this is a live relay of the 1983 concert which Madge gave in New York, certainly one of his best performances of Clavicembalisticum. I remember being enthused by the piece when I read an extensive article in IPQ about John Ogdon’s studio recording for Chris Rice’s obscure label Altarus.

There I thought that the writer exaggerated his claim on the importance of that flawed recording, indeed it is dismissed in the notes for this release as plainly flawed, apparently Ogdon takes over an hour longer than Madge, surely too much. Indeed Madge had me completely breathless with his amazing and incredible virtuosity in this, the sine qua non of all piano repertoire. Some parts such as the massive Passacaglia in the Fourth part are altogether too difficult for comprehension, indeed one wonders what Sorabji was thinking about when writing such complex notes in such a dissident manner. However there are rewards to be had in the Third Part where the sheer overwhelming force of the Theme and Variations carries all before it in technical accomplishment and unuldarated mastery.

The introductory essays accompanying the booklet espouse on the writing of overlong works which can be explained in shorter terms and occasionally I really felt that Sorabji overstates some of the fugal passages to an impossible extent. And I have to be honest, if there are any wrong notes in Madge’s performance then I did not spot them! BIS’s packaging is the usual excellence with notes by Sorabji experts together with a short introduction from Madge who deserves the highest posssible praise for his incredible playing. The recording is also quite outstanding with a crystal-clear piano and minimal audience noise except the deserving and excruciating applause that concludes what must have been a memorable event. Reading some of Sorabji’s venomous writings puts Opus Clavicembalisticum more into perspective, a work of huge and daunting proportions but one with a deep personal message behind it. Now, what would Sorabji say of that? I shudder to think!

Gerald Fenech

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