Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Kaikhosru Shapurji SORABJI (1891-1988)
Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930)
Geoffrey Douglas Madge (piano)
rec Chicago 24 April 1983, live concert performance. Yamaha Grand Piano. ADD
BIS CD-1062/1064 [234.23]

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Despite plenty of web attention, a major Ashgate book, and various CDs (ASV, MusicMasters and pre-eminently, Chis Rice's Altarus label), Sorabji remains a figure peripheral to this era's mainstream. Mysterious characters intrigue and to that extent Sorabji's music retains its allure. People will for long be drawn to his music by virtue of its exoticism and strangeness.

Sorabji had an excoriating way with the musical claque and with enthusiastic or dismissive amateurs. This is to be coupled with a seeming insensitivity to neglect and with the luxuriant style of his music. All this served to leave him excluded and exclusive. Going by his writings that is what he wanted. I only half believe that.

It is worth noting that the work on this set (by no means his largest solo piano work, by the way!) carries the following superscription:-

To my two friends (e duobus unum): Hugh M'Diarmid and C.M. 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.

Opus Clavicembalisticum, a work of Busonian conception, is divided into three parts each of which is further sub-divided. The main parts, with timings and layout details from the BIS set, are: Pars Prima (CD1 50.38); Pars Altera (CD2 50.19+CD3 33.56); Pars Tertia (CD4 61.07 CD5 33.18). BIS have add 1.22 of well merited applause as the last track of CD5. By the way, the five discs are enclosed in a double-width case with the usual hinged flaps.

The Pars Prima falls into: I Introito; II Preludio-Corale (Nexus); III Fuga I quatuor vocibus; IV Fantasia; Fuga II duplex.

Pars Altera: VI Interludium Primum (Thema cum XLIX variationibus); VII Cadenza I; VIII Fuga tertia triplex.

Pars Tertia: IX Interludium alterum: Fuga IV quadruplex; XII Coda Stretta.

O.C. is a work of multiple layers and density. It is tonal music pushed far outwards. The riches of this work comprehend a variety of moods and characters. It is turbulent with dance, replete with nervy filigree. It creates remote and wondering faerie vistas but steers far from the shoals of twee-ness.

Its mood companions (like it or not) include John Foulds’ Essays in the Modes, April-England and the exactly coeval Dynamic Triptych as well as the Ballade (1930) by John Ireland (brilliantly recreated by Alan Rowlands in his 1960s recording for Lyrita Recorded Edition - I do wish that someone would issue his mono recordings on CD). There are also many pages of O.C. that rattle and shudder with a gigantic Scythian energy. Think in terms of Mossolov as well as Prokofiev. In fact his torrential digital bombardments reach forward to Peter Mennin's masterly Piano Concerto and the splenetic middle movement of Panufnik's Piano Concerto. The Mennin was recorded by Ogdon for RCA and is now well worth finding on a CRI disc. Track forward also to John Cage, not in the extremist minimalism of the last years, but in the Lilliputian crystalline perfection of the Sonatas and Interludes of the 1940s.

Cross-references continue to recur and at the risk of upsetting purists here are some more, all of which will help you envision (well, the aural equivalent) the sound of this music. The swirling chaotic star-furnace of some of OC is evocative of Percy Grainger's Warriors ballet. At other moments both the gentle melodies of wintry night stars and the violence of Bax's Winter Legends are recalled. Some pages are bleak and phantasmal, in touch with the lichen-tendrilled moods and the warp and stagnation dissected by Frank Bridge's Oration and Phantasm. Bartok's Second Piano Concerto and Nielsen's organ piece Commotio are of the same era. Sorabji is naturally at home with leafy generous fragrances and his nocturnes are related to Szymanowski's Muezzin Songs. Interestingly he steers away from jazz even in the indefatigably dancing fugues (of which there are four in OC).

By the way true Sorabji completists should note that this BIS set is not the same performance as the Royal Conservatory Series (Keytone) RCS 4-800 (1983). The Keytone 4 LP set was a landmark but the sound was compressed in order to get the work down to eight vinyl sides. The Keytone immortalises Geoffrey Douglas Madge's first Utrecht performance on 11 June 1982. The BIS was taken down in good analogue sound on 24 April 1983 in Chicago.

The 1991 Altarus (AIR-CD-9075(4)) has Ogdon performing OC mostly without GDM's velocity or discipline though Ogdon's unruly and wayward spirit is patent. The Ogdon is, however, a de luxe production in a large box across four discs and with an exemplary booklet - not that the BIS rice paper equivalent is deficient and it does come complete with invaluable notes by Kenneth Derus (dedicatee of Sorabji's 1981, Opus Secretum for solo piano) with music exx.

The Altarus box is a rare item not often chanced on even in the larger record shops. Its large box format does not help find it a place amid the CD racks. Ogdon is better recorded but the work of the Chicago engineers was essentially healthy and it is no hardship to hear OC as recaptured by BIS. It is the BIS I would recommend and its 5 CDs for the price of 3 also helps when the full price of the Altarus is circa £51.29. Altarus seem to lack a website and have a flat profile with more in common with camouflage than with conspicuous presence.

I am saddened that Madge's Medtner piano concerto discs (Danacord) have disappeared. Can we hope for a reissue - perhaps on two CDs? Madge might also consider the six Sorabji piano concertos not to mention the six by Reginald Sacheverell Coke and the four by York Bowen (the latter revering Sorabji and whose Twenty Four Preludes for solo piano were in turn highly valued by Sorabji, their dedicatee).

Longer term there is so much Sorabji to be experienced even if it needs a John Paul Getty or Randolph Hearst to bankroll projects with the titanic allure of the Messa Alta Sinfonica for soli, chorus, organ and orchestra (1955-61), the Opus Clavisymphonicum for piano and orchestra (1957-59) dedicated to John Ireland and the Jami Symphony for piano, chorus, solo voice and orchestra.

Appreciate OC while it is here to be heard. One of the ikons of 20th century arcana heard in an interpretation borne of at least 20 years of study.

Rob Barnett


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