Opus clavicembalisticum is a work for solo piano composed by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji , completed on June 25, It is notable for its length and difficulty: at the time of its completion it was the longest piano piece in existence. Several of Sorabji's later works, such as the Symphonic Variations for Piano which last probably about nine hours are even longer. At the time of its completion, it was possibly the most technically demanding solo piano work in existence due, for the most part, to its extreme length and rhythmic complexity and to the vast resources of physical and mental stamina demanded by its many passages of transcendental virtuosity, although some works conceived by New Complexity , modernist and avant-garde composers, along with Sorabji himself, were more difficult still; it is in this particular area that Opus clavicembalisticum primarily receives its notoriety, and to this day is still highly regarded in that light. Sorabji may in part have been inspired to compose the work after hearing a performance by Egon Petri of Busoni 's Fantasia contrappuntistica  and Opus clavicembalisticum to some degree embraces an homage to Busoni's work. Opus clavicembalisticum has twelve movements, of hugely varying dimensions: from a brief cadenza , lasting only three minutes, to a mammoth interlude , containing a toccata , adagio , and passacaglia with 81 variations , requiring around an hour to play.
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Composer or Director: Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. How would Sorabji have reacted to the current wave of interest in his music? Surely with a measure of gratitude towards those dedicated performers who have defied the supposed impossibilities of execution; so far as public opinion goes, probably with total indifference, and so far as critical opinion goes, no doubt with utter contempt. Grieve[,] likewise to the everlasting glory of those few men blessed and sanctified in the curses and execrations of those many whose praise is eternal damnation''.
The excoriating tone is characteristic and is even quite mild compared to some of the criticism Sorabji penned in the second quarter of this century such as the Open letter to a conductor beginning, ''Egregious, Egobstical, Empty-pated and Exhibibionistical Sir''. And it is easy to see how the enormity of Sorabji's musical conceptions could have sprung from the same mind as his alliteratively aligned polysyllabic pejoratives.
What the late John Ogdon's new recording does, however, even more than the issues reviewed by John Warrack in May, is to remove Sorabji once and for all from the category of freakishness to which many would wish to consign him. And I say that having approached Opus clavicerntbalisticum with a degree of mild scepticism, wary of the temptation to feign interest in the extraordinary for its own sake, suspecting that even if there was something there it would not justify the Wagnerian time-scale or the unremitting textural density.
It has to be said that 'O. Yes, the opening bars are arresting, and for a while the extravagance of harmony, texture, and pyrotechnic agility exert a cobra-like fasdnation. But if that fascination is to last and to grow towards deeper empathy the listener must be prepared to be stretched. I don't mean so much intellectually or maybe I do, because I still find much of the fugal writing impenetrable and that may be my shortcoming as spiritually.
At the very least it helps if you are open to the intervention of mystical states, whether of a late-Beethoven kind Sorabji passionately admired the Hammerklavier Fugue or an Ivesian one I doubt whether he knew Ives's music but the stylistic and atmospheric similarities with the outer movements of the Concord Sonata are astonishing. And if you respond to Busoni's Fantasia contrappuntistica you have the most helpful springboard of all, for the design, harmonic language and overall aesthetic of 'O.
Many specialist collectors will already own Geoffrey Douglas Madge's recording on four LPs Royal Conservatory Series RCS—not generally available taken live from the Holland Festival, and may wonder whether they need Ogdon's new studio recording as well. They do for it is totally different—in some places not so well played, in others very much better, and overall pitched at a level of insight which Madge, for all his undeniable virtuosity, cannot rival.
This bothers me somewhat. The John Tobin performance of Part 1 which led to the famous embargo on public performances is said to have been at least twice its proper length. First of all, how did anyone know what the proper length was? Third, if Tobin took twice as long as Sorabji, as does Ogdon, does that mean Tobin was as 'good' as Ogdon and has been unjustly maligned, or was duration not the real problem?
At any rate I do know that I never find Ogdon too slow. When he allows cannon-shot climaxes 45 seconds to die off, when he stretches the Adagio in Part 3 to incantatory stillness, when he follows a Part 2 Variation of Messiaenic exaltation with one of Heiliger Dankgesang inwardness, the experience is one of awesome inner intensity, as well as providing the counterbalance to the expanses of dense, almost manic activity.
And the four fugues which form the backbone of the structure benefit from the lucidity which comparatively spacious tempos allow. Indeed, the passages which obstinately resist my powers of comprehension are principally those like the second fugue and the second exposition of the fourth fugue where Ogdon's fingers cannot keep up with his brain or is it vice versa?
In the brief punctuating Fantasy of Part 1 and the Cadenzas of Parts 2 and 3, Ogdon's wildness has the force of a brainstorm. Maybe you will find that deplorable, maybe phenomenal; but it is certain that few pianists could even attempt such things, and in the context, setting off the towering intellectuality of the fugues as in some hugely expanded baroque toccata, the degree of approximation is not one I find intolerable.
I suppose it should be said that the Bosendorfer instrument goes woefully out of tune in Part 2 which is precisely where the inspiration of the playing is running highest. However, on the whole it withstands the battering very well, and Ogdon exploits its bass register magnificently, producing cavernous spaces and thunderous detonations to clinch structural points at either end of the dynamic spectrum.
Altarus's recording impressively captures this massiveness; if it is fractrionally on the reverberant side of ideal, this is definitely preferable to the dessicated sound on Madge's LPs.
At 92'59'' and '07'' respectively, Parts 2 and 3 have to be split, but given that, the format is intelligently chosen. A handsome page booklet, including essays by Sorabji, Ogdon, Ronald Stevenson, and Sorabji's friend Alastair Hinton, accomnanies the set.
Sorabji Opus Clavicembalisticum Opus clavicembalisticum. Follow us.
Sorabji Opus Clavicembalisticum
KSS50 Opus Clavicembalisticum
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