Sorabji: Opus clavicembalisticum

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COMPOSERS: Sorabji
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Opus clavicembalisticum
PERFORMER: Geoffrey Douglas Madge (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1062-64 ADD Reissue (1983)
Opus clavicembalisticum isn’t actually the longest piano work in existence – Sorabji wrote several longer, but so far they haven’t been performed or recorded. Only two pianists have essayed the complete OC (as it’s known in the trade) since the composer premiered it in 1930. Geoffrey Douglas Madge gave the second performance, at Utrecht in 1982, subsequently released on LPs of indifferent sound. John Ogdon’s 1988 South Bank performance was complemented by a studio-recorded CD release by Altarus. This ‘new’ recording is of a concert performance Madge gave in Chicago in 1983 – the US premiere – long admired by Sorabji purists as possibly the most faithful rendering the Brobdingnagian work has had.

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The sound is very good – clear and clean, with just a few creaks and virtually no audience noise. Madge too is a clear, clean and impressively accurate player of Sorabji’s mind-bogglingly involved polyphony. Ogdon took 50 minutes longer, although on four discs rather than five: Madge’s extra disc avoids splitting the Variations. Yet OC is one of those mysterious works that spurns clock time: it’s not really long – the mind adjusts to scale, as in Wagner and Bruckner. Some Sorabjians tend to shake their heads sadly over Ogdon’s performance, but I wouldn’t be without it: there’s a grandeur and wild daring about it, and a Romantic voluptuousness, that transcend its deficiencies and are the opposite of Madge’s approach (compare their readings of the short Toccata movement to see). Sorabjians should have both, of course: and if you want to hear a towering and still-enigmatic achievement of 20th-century piano literature, this BIS set is self-recommending. Calum MacDonald