March 12, 2002
UdK - Konzertsaal Bundesallee

Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum

A survivor reports from Berlin


Kaikhosru Sorabji
Opus Clavicembalisticum


Geoffrey Douglas Madge - Piano

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Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum

A survivor reports from Berlin

by Nancy Chapple

Geoffrey Madge

Kaikosru Sorabji lived from 1892-1988, and wrote long and hugely complex piano works. Highly eccentric, largely self-taught as pianist and composer, he prohibited performance or publication of his works for many decades. Some works have been published, but the vast majority exist only in manuscript. Which is why it was a real occasion for Geoffrey Douglas Madge to play Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum at Maerzmusik, a Berlin festival of contemporary music. The almost four-hour long work was completed in 1929-30, and first performed by Sorabji himself. Madge was the next pianist to be given permission to perform the work (in 1983); he has also recorded it.

Apparently Sorabji told Madge that "my works are like an endless song, simply sing them ." There are, however, no sing-along melodies here. Though there are rarely harsh jumps or sforzandi, and the melodies are built in steps and octaves, the meter is well-nigh impossible to discern. The pulse is flexible; left and right hand often play patterns of 3 against 7, 10 against 11 or the like.

A patient and attentive audience of 150 heard a constant ebb and flow of dynamic high points and quasi-impressionistic contemplative lows. Volume built up in successive waves, each one splashing higher than the previous; the listeners not sure how many waves were heard and how many were to come. Frequently several lines moved at two or more speeds superimposed over each other; the dominant voice often moved more slowly. Sorabji himself wrote that the harmonies "bite like nitric acid," and indeed the occasional excursions into tonal regions provided massive relief.

At a first hearing the piece's complexity was simply too much to grasp: the unifying thread in the tremendously long sets of variations could not be perceived. The fugue entrances are clearly laid out one after another, followed by episodes where the tension is released. Madge led us clearly and confidently through the tangled and knotty counterpoint, and yet the themes themselves were hard to get a handle on: where was the harmonic center? What is the basic rhythm?

Madge was tense, physically strained by the huge powers of concentration - and just pure chops - that the piece required from him. It was an incredible accomplishment to be able to keep unreeling virtuoso lines, maintaining triple and quadruple fugues with integrity. But it remains a hugely long and inapproachable work. The human ability to concentrate starts to flag. Nonetheless, when at midnight the piece finally drew to a close, the audience heralded Madge with a standing ovation.

(This review originally appeared at