Opus Clavicembalisticum is an important, but not great, work
Mark S. Carpenter | Austin, TX USA | 06/12/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"First -- what I'm about to say in no way takes anything away from Madge's performance of this piece. Madge's performance is far, FAR better than John Ogden's; and Madge seems to have captured the real essence of this piece in a way Ogden never could have. This performance represents a tremendous accomplishment for Mr. Madge. If you're going to buy a performance of the Opus Clavicembalisticum, the Madge performance is the one you should buy. About the music: I have a feeling I'm going to upset some die-hard Sorabji enthusiasts with my comments, but I'll call this like I see it.To be honest: for the amount of thematic material presented, and the way Sorabji uses it, I think this piece is about ten movements too long. Opus Clavicembalisticum reminds me of compositions by pianistic "whiz kids" -- 17 and 18 year olds taking composition in their first year of college, who have the technique to play anything they want, and who don't hesitate to write the most daunting technical difficulties into their music -- but simply don't have the maturity to organize a large scale piece or to frame the musicality behind what it is they're writing! (I'm guilty of having done the same thing, too, when I attended the Indiana University School of Music 28 years ago.)Sorabji certainly knows how to write "huge," but the material in this piece just doesn't warrant a four-hour composition. While listening to all the counterpoint, all the variations, all the extremes of register -- I found myself really aching to hear one good, cohesive slow movement! The lone "Adagio" wasn't REALLY an "Adagio." There are 20th century composers whom I play, and whom I program regularly in my own recitals, who can write on very large scales - yet manage keep their musical thoughts organized. I think of Messiaen, Busoni, Hindemith -- even Shostakovich (if we consider the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87). These composers are able to take their ideas and develop them -- and most importantly, to CONTRAST their ideas as they develop them. In the Opus Clavicembalisticum, Sorabji ends up with a dulling sameness -- which, unfortunately, lasts nearly four hours. Frankly, if I were going to play a Sorabji piece, I'd probably program a smaller-scale piece such as La Jardin Parfume.Sorabji believed the Opus Clavicembalisticum to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, pieces of all time. It's an important piece -- if anything, just to study his techniques. For all its complexity, is not great music. It is absolutely not in the same league with Bach's "Goldberg Variations", Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" or the "Hammerklavier" sonata, Brahms' "Handel" or "Paganini" Variations, any Ravel work, the Busoni "Fantasia Contrapuntistica" or Hindemith's "Ludus Tonalis". If you want to hear a wonderful performance of this piece, get the Madge. If you want to hear a piece LIKE this, composed by a real master, consider purchasing Messiaen's "Nativity of the Savior.""
Poor Performance of a Great Work
Christopher Forbes | Brooklyn,, NY | 03/11/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The Sorabji Opus Clavicembalum is beyond me in terms of review. Like other monumental works it seems to exist in it's own plane, above my own petty likes and dislikes, rather like the Bach Art of the Fugue or the work of Ravi Shankar. Suffice it to say that Sorabji's nearly 4 hour work is dense, fierce in it's extremes, crowded with detail, exacting in it's counterpoint and almost crazy in it's intensity. Written in a style that takes Busoni, Szymanowski and Scriabin as a starting point, Sorabji squeezes these influences through a distorting prism to create a torrent of sound unlike any other. I can't say whether I like it or not...and I'm not sure that it matters, anymore than it matters whether I like the Rocky Mountains or not.What I can comment on definatively is the performance. Sorabji is the Holy Grail of 20th century pianism. No other composer, before or after is as complex, dense or as demanding. (Not even Michael Finnessey who comes close.) Merely to play this piece in public is an act of enormous courage...or enormous hubris. So I respect the attempt of anyone to try.In the current instance, BIS chose to record Madge in a live recital in Chicago, playing the OC in one program. The undertaking is heroic, but there are major problems with the results. Particularly on the first disc, Madge seems to have trouble with the material. There are many obvious flubbed notes and poorly executed passages. Though these mistakes subside as the work continues, they are present throughout the performance. As a result, many passages lack the power that they should have to make them come across in performance. Even passages that are clean tend to sound tenative...as if we can hear Madge praying not to make another mistake. I am not sure that it is possible to play this music with complete accuracy in concert...so my complaints may not really lie with Madge. But BIS should at the least have done some post-production work on these notes. I know that this is difficult to do with live performances but it is not impossible. Perhaps BIS could have rented out the hall afterwards, without an audience and done the retakes needed to clean up the performance. (If anyone here believes that most classical studio performances are done in one take and clean...you haven't been in the studio.) Alternatively, with this music it would have been better to release a studio album. Though most listeners at a performance can forgive mistakes...and should up to a point, on a disc it is something else entirely.All this being said, I still think that a serious music lover should know this work....particularly if you like Scriabin, or Busoni. The only other competition is John Ogden's set, which is harder to find. I have yet to hear this one, but will probably try to track it down. The work deserves to be heard in a really good performances.Three Stars for the performance - the work it self is beyond praise or condemnation."
Sickening, absolutely sickening...
John Carey | America | 06/22/2005
(2 out of 5 stars)
"This product is very lucky to have recieved two stars from me. It is, in a word, terrible. I do not believe there is any one word that can truly describe the atrocity that G.D. Madge has committed! A scandal! A travesty! It is because of performances like THIS that Sorabji banned performances of his works in the first place! This performance is so terrible, it is OBSCENE!
First of all, in so many places, Madge practically improvises. In the parts where there are large jumping chords, Madge merely pounds out random notes. He does not follow the music. This is what causes many to think that this piece is really bad... they think it is nothing but relentless "banging", but let me tell you, it is not! I have studied the score for this piece for a very long time now, and that is NOT what Sorabji really wrote! I could practically point out parts on every page where Madge completely fakes the performance, often not even trying to hit the right notes.
So, let us start with the very first movement. This truly sets up what will follow. Right when the music starts to get hard, he starts to make mistake after mistake. Aside from that, his playing is not clean. Later, he just starts hitting random notes, a skill that he definitely has mastered, I must say.
The second movement is no exception. Though there are moments when his playing is bearable, for the most part, it is no better than the first movement. The majority of Fuga I is faked. The Fantasia is actually all right for the most part, but he doesn't play cleanly, and at the end, he goes back to hitting random notes.
His entire Coda-Stretta is improvised. Any thing he plays that resembles the actual music even the slightest bit is merely a coincidence. And the end can make your ears bleed...
So, I gave this two stars because he played a few parts nicely, but I would not recommend this recording to anyone. I, personally, would wait for the Powell recording, since he apparently knows what he is talking about."
offeck | New York, NY -- United States of America | 07/28/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"A towering and still-enigmatic achievement, the 'sine qua non' of all piano literature, Opus Clavicembalisticum, OC, a three-part solo piano epic, is a spell-binding work by one of history's most unusual composers. OC is not the longest piano work in existence; Sorabji himself wrote several longer, but so far, they have not been performed or recorded. At almost four hours, OC-one of those mysterious works that spurns clock time, making the mind adjust to its scale-consists of 12 movements evolving around a theme with 44 variations and a passacaglia with 81 variations. It is, as Nicholas Slonimsky says, "a brobdingnagian masterpiece." Its fugues, overstated to an impossible extent, are fantastically complex and its harmonies, in Sorabji's words, "bite like nitric acid." Of pristine counterpoint and arcane structures, OC has its own type of drama, not one built on jarring contrasts or abrupt tempo changes but one constructed with an astounding variety of tempo and textures, voluminous rhythmic combinations and ornamentation, all of which are introduced to the listener at Sorabji's unique pace. His compositional components change not over abrupt jumps in time, but through graduated gulfs. What Gertrude Stein said of writing-that paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not-applies to Sorabji's music monuments. Think of a kaleidoscope slowly revolving on a pedestal, slower than human fingers can turn it. What you see an hour later bears some resemblance to the original, but with different shades and different shapes. It is easier to remember the experience of this music than to analyze it while listening, which ought to be done in a single evening, but only at all if you want to give your heart and mind--not just your brain--a real workout.Sorabji premiered Opus Clavicembalisticum, playing it for the first and last time, in 1930, dedicating it "to the everlasting glory of those few men blessed and sanctified in the curses and execrations of those many whose praise is eternal damnation." Only two pianists have essayed it since. Before Geoffrey Douglas Madge gave OC's second performance at Utrecht in 1982, subsequently released on LPs of indifferent sound, in one of his four concerts of this legendary work, it had not been performed in its entirety in more than 50 years. Its third performance, given by John Ogdon at South Bank in 1988, was complemented by a studio-recorded CD release by Altarus over which many Sorabji 'experts' sadly shake their heads. Although on five discs rather than four to avoid splitting up the Variations, Madge takes 50 minutes less than Ogdon. As it might be expected, their approaches are opposite, and any true lover of Sorabji cannot be without both. Although idiosyncratic, Ogdon's performance is of a grandiose and wildly daring romantic voluptuousness, transcending the work's deficiencies. Yamaha had a special piano flown in from Tokyo for this recorded performance, the US premiere, which Madge gave in Chicago in 1983. Receiving rave reviews from critics, long admired by purists as possibly the most faithful rendering this work has had, this concert has since acquired mythic status. Many people complain about all the wrong notes in Madge's performance, but I dare anybody to point them out! Madge, over the years having assembled a repertoire of formidable modern works and technical powers as a pianist, both of which may very well be without equal, is an impressively accurate player of Sorabji's mind-bogglingly involved polyphony. Complex, mammoth, and phenomenal, in OC, there are stretches of intense manic complexity and magisterial poetry that cry out for a transcendental virtuosity which Madge provides in spades, and for this I give him my highest possible praise. He had me breathless with his complete mastery of this music that is all too often too difficult for comprehension.Sorabji, viewing technique as a physical end to spiritual means, had a venomous contempt of people that allowed him, without guilt, to thrust his heinously difficult music into a realm of well nigh unperformablility. Although of huge and daunting proportions, his works tend to have a deep personal message behind it... This astounding interpretation, performed with grace, muscularity, and above all, extraordinary patience and care, this BIS set, very well recorded, with a crystal-clean-and-clear piano and virtually no audience noise (except the excruciating applause at conclusion), is self-recommending."
Ignore Magde's claque, go with Ogdon!
Christopher Smith | Los Angeles | 05/30/2006
(2 out of 5 stars)
"There is certainly a striking disparity among the reviews posted - praise from, for example, an admitted associate of Madge, and slanderous, disgraceful, utterly contemptible condemnation of Ogdon ("awash in anti-psychotic medication"? "not one brain cell working"? - the person who wrote this is a pig). I can only say that, having known the piece first from Madge's recording, and having recently acquired the Ogdon, there is no comparison. Ogdon makes music - and great, astonishing music - where Madge produces endless streams of uncharacterised, undifferentiated note-spinning. The fugues, in particular, are utterly mechanical and apparently devoid of any comprehension in Madge's reading. To be sure, he certainly deserves credit for tackling the work, but one wonders why he released this recording - and why he tolerates, if he does, the blatantly offensive, disgusting claquery of his supporters."