John Ogdon records one of the most complex works in 20th-century piano literature


If music is, as most people would agree, an art based on communication, the case of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji is indeed a strange one.  He had never actively sought performance of his works, and in 1936 forbade any performance without his express permission.  Until his death in 1988, that permission was granted to only ten pianists — two of whom (Petri and Cortot) never played any of his music in public — three organists and three singers.  Yet his music has aroused the highest admiration in many musicians who have read the scores, and in the few people who, to date, have heard any of it.  So why the silence? Sorabji was born in 1892 in Chingford, Essex.  Privately educated, he began piano lessons with his mother at the age of six and was mostly se1f-taught from his mid-teens on.  His musical tastes were broad, and he was familiar with much new music of the early 20th-century long before it became widely known.  He began composing around 1914, and his early works were influenced by (among others) Scriabin, Szymanowski, Godowsky, and Busoni.  Performances of these, mostly by himself were rare, but many commentators were much impressed by his compositions.

In June 1930 he completed Opus Clavicembalisticum, 252 pages in manuscript of some of the most extraordinary piano music ever written.  The composer himself said of the final sections ‘The harmony bites like nitric acid and the counterpoint grinds like the mills of God’.  Four fugues, a theme and 49 variations, a passacaglia and 81 variations, a chorale prelude, a fantasia and two cadenzas, framed by an introit and a coda stretta, make up the work, in a structure not unlike Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica.  Playing for some hours, it is not to be taken lightly, but what really sets OC apart is the perfectly unique sound world it occupies.

In 1957, while at the Royal Northern College of Music, John Ogdon was given a score of OC by Peter Maxwell Davies, then a fellow student.  Ogdon’s phenomenal technique and musical vision soon absorbed the work, and in 1959 he played it to its dedicatee, the great Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid.  Twenty-five years later, Chris Rice of Altarus Records came across OC and, much impressed, asked composer Ronald Stevenson if he would record it.  Stevenson did not have the time to learn the work for performance (although he has studied the score and written a detailed analysis of it), but suggested Ogdon instead.  In three sessions in 1985 and 1986, possibly the single most remarkable piano recording ever made was completed.  It was necessary to record the work in three blocks to give Ogdon time to study each section thoroughly; not, however, to limit the amount of work he had to do at each session.  I was privileged to attend those recordings, and I think the most astonishing aspect of them was Ogdon’s sheer energy.  The fourth fugue and coda stretta comprise some 50 minutes of music, fantastically difficult.  At the third session, he played this section straight through four times in succession, with hardly a pause.  The listeners appeared to have reached exhaustion; Ogdon might just have played a Clementi Sonatina.  Never have I felt so strongly that the piano had become a part of the pianist.

The sessions were a low-key affair, involving only Ogdon, Rice (engineer and producer), longtime Sorabji devotee and advocate Alistair Hinton (executive producer) and me (page-turner).  Work was intense, and included as ‘light relief’ recordings of other works; a recital disc of Liszt, Chopin, Busoni, Dohnanyi and Balakirev (AIR-2-9073, praised in HFN/RR) and Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica.  Recording equipment was two microphones, two microphone amplifiers (custom), and a recorder.  The piano was a Bösendorfer Imperial, and the location a large church in North London.  Work proceeded with hardly a hitch; on one occasion the piano was delivered to Cornwall by mistake, and one day was disrupted by a police search for armed robbers, but the schedule was maintained.  Much tricky editing later, the recording is at last available.  I asked Ogdon if he felt particularly drawn to large works.  He did, he said. ‘I like the large scale of the argument in OC, although it is certainly hard to grasp at first, particularly in the fourth fugue.  I had to add interpretation marks throughout that section, to remind myself of the structure.  I have tried to find a musical architecture in the work; the way the fugues get progressively longer suggests building.’

Interpretation of OC is in fact left very much to the performer; indications in the score are rare.  Hinton commented ‘Sorabji did not find it necessary to put many markings in his scores.  He felt that anyone who understood the music would know what to do with it’.  Perhaps in two hundred years, we imagined, ‘authenticity’ experts would declare that Sorabji’s music should be played without dynamic inflection.  Rice pointed to the way Ogdon shapes the fugues as an example of the clear implications of the score.  No words are necessary to direct this long-term flow of the ideas.

The sonorities of OC are its most striking and memorable feature.  They operate in a similar way to those of Messiaen, and have a comparable transcendental quality.  Ogdon finds them particularly interesting; ‘In working on OC, I have tried to develop a more incisive sound to deal with the complex chords and make the counterpoint work.  Use of the pedals is very important, too.  I use as little as possible in the fugues, to keep the textures clear.  Some of the textures remind me of Brahms, in fact.’ Brahms? ‘There are also echoes of Hindemith in places, which is probably coincidence.’ Why did Sorabji not wish his works to be performed? Hinton knew Sorabji well for many years, and found that ‘He didn’t seem very interested in performance, and although he helped those who wished to play his music and whom he thought capable of doing so, he had no wish to attend their performances and risk “making a spectacle of himself”.  I once commented that one of his works would fit well in a concert programme, and he merely said, “Oh, I suppose it would.” He was just indifferent to the idea.’ Rice found this hard to accept; ‘I don’t believe that he was never interested in performances.  He was principally concerned about bad performances giving people the wrong idea of the music.’ Indeed, Sorabji wrote about his music being ‘unsuitable for performance under present, or indeed any forseeable future, conditions.  No performance at all is preferable to an obscene travesty.’ And when faced with performers capable of meeting the challenges of the music, he readily gave consent to performances — as to John Ogdon.

The conversation turned to the general issue of unfamiliar music.  Ogdon is a noted champion of new music, but, he said, ‘If you programme an unfamiliar modern work in a London recital, it does tend to reduce the audience.  Because of this, concert agents are less keen to promote it...’ A vicious circle, in many ways.  But surely, 20th-century music should be the most vital to 20th-century ears.  Why not approach the music of the past through that of the present? Hinton cited the case of Kevin Bowyer, the brilliant young organist who has recently recorded Sorabji’s First Organ Symphony for Continuum.  When Bowyer first met Sorabji, he said he had the feeling he had just met JS Bach.  And interestingly, since studying the Sorabji he has started playing Bach, which previously he did not perform.’ A case of Sorabji’s profound understanding being communicated through his own music? Let us hope that the miracle will spread.