SORABJI - OPUS CLAVICEMBALISTICUM, A1TARUS A1R-CD9075
RECORD OF THE MONTH
REVIEW by MAX HARRISON, 1986
This is spoken of as Sorabji’s masterpiece, which seems rather glib considering how little of his music we know and how much he wrote after it. Sheer size is no criterion, of course, yet one does wonder about, say, the l000-page ‘Jami’ Symphony or the Symphonic Variations for piano, said to last for six hours. Actually, the first idea to be got rid of is that Opus Clavicembalisticum is an unending orgy of post-Romantic hyper-virtuosity. In view of Alkan’s Etudes Op.39, or the 1838 version of Liszt’s Etudes d’Exécution Transcendante, it cannot be said that the executive demands it makes are quite without precedent - although length is indeed another factor. Something approaching five hours (with intervals) is not considered excessive by listeners to certain operas, but an immense strain is here imposed on a lone pianist (even with intervals). Whether we are thinking of Ogdon’s concert performance in London last year, or the above recording, done in only three sessions, this is one of the great pianistic feats of our time.
But it is important to grasp that it is far from being a pianistic triumph only. OC is an exceedingly difficult work not just to play but also to understand as a whole, and if there is something more astonishing here than Ogdon’s performance it is his musical insight, sustained over vast stretches of terrain. True, he has been playing OC for a large part of his life, and the admirable (also sizeable) booklet included with this boxed set has photographs taken at a private performance that he gave 30 years ago for, among others, the works dedicatee, Hugh McDiarmid.
Some passages, such as the second section of the fourth Fugue, arc storms, one might say hurricanes, of notes, yet although OC is tightly packed with incident it contains passages of the most striking simplicity, such as Variations 60 or 74 of the Passacaglia. There are others again, like Variation 63, which arc not simple but are completely unadorned. In fact virtuosity in any ordinary sense is not an issue in OC‘s four Fugues, which include what are, musically speaking, this work’s most difficult-to-comprehend pages yet also finally its most rewarding. Fugue Ill, nearly the longest movement, is particularly demanding and I had to go back to it repeatedly in the course of preparing this review. Though scarcely providing the score’s most spectacular moments, these fugues contain Sorabji’s most original thinking here, and, while each has a character of its own, each rises to great intensity. Ogdon’s projection of the form of these pieces, especially Fugues III and IV, is probably the most remarkable single aspect of his interpretation of this often sparsely marked score.
If OC is anything to go by, Sorabji’s fugues are very much a question of counterpoint first, and harmony second. At the opposite pole to them are the two huge variation movements, which at the deepest level arise out of harmonic considerations. Although the Adagio which forms the second part of the second Interlude contains what is perhaps, in any conventional sense, the work’s most beautiful music, newcomers to OC — which means practically all of us — would do best to start by repeatedly listening to the twin sets of variations. One, a theme with 49 variations, makes up the first Interlude, while the Passacaglia, which has 81 variations (cf the first movement of Organ Symphony No.1. reviewed here in May), follows the Adagio. With great immediacy they present very many aspects of Sorabji’s composing, not least the seemingly inexhaustible invention of his piano writing.
Even when we have made progress in absorbing the sometimes densely concentrated and original contrapuntal thinking of the fugues, and the bewildering diversity of the variations, problems remain both for listeners and for this composer’s as yet few interpreters. These arise from OC’s (and his other works’) lack of an evident background. In part this is a matter of our ignorance of Sorabji’s output as a whole, but also of our lack of knowledge of the origins of his style and methods. No.18 in the first variation set always reminds me of one aspect of the music of Bernard van Dieren, yet such echoes from elsewhere are precious few in these 252 pages. Except for Busoni.
It would not apply, I think, to Sorabji’s other pieces, but if one crucial work provides a background to CC it is Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica. Certainly important aspects of CC are missed if one is unacquainted with that earlier work. Even if oblique, Sorabji’s repeated references to it are significant and clearly deliberate — comparable In fact to the allusions to Beethoven’s Hammerklavler in Barraqué’s Piano Sonata and Brahms’s Sonata Op.1. As traced by Ronald Stevenson’s helpful analysis of CC in the accompanying booklet, Sorabji’s references go beyond the Fantasia to Doktor Faust and Violin Sonata 2. I find myself reminded of Busoni’s Elegies at some points also. Whether Sorabji had these other Busoni pieces consciously in mind, as he unquestionably did the Fantasia, is, of course, another matter. But he in no sense worked in Busoni’s shadow, for one can hardly imagine a score of more disconcertingly complete originality than OC. The need to know other major compositions of his becomes urgent