Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Opus Clavicembalisticexpialadocious

I had some time on my hands, so what better way to while away four and a half hours than borrow the score to Opus Clavicembalisticum and have a listen?

Some background may be in order.

Opus Clavicembalisticum is a 1930 piano work by the notoriously eccentric British composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. It consists of twelve movements which vary in length from less than five minutes (the opening Introit) to almost an hour (the sixth movement, a theme with 49 variations). Although longer and more difficult piano works have since been written (several by Sorabji himself), this particular work is one of the most notorious in the repertoire - it was even briefly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The performance history of Opus Clavicembalisticum is complex: the composer premiered the work himself, but was so disgusted by the inadequacy of subsequent performances that he forebade any pianists to perform the work in public. (The injunction is still in the published score: "Public performance prohibited unless by express consent of the composer." The result was a 50-year period in which Opus (and almost all other Sorabji works) were never performed. Audiences knew of Sorabji, if at all, through his reputation as a recluse - a sign outside his house reportedly read "Visitors Unwelcome". Only since the 1980s have performers taken up his work again.

Interestingly enough, Sorabji has written three organ symphonies: the first, a mere two hours long, has been performed on several occasions, but the four-hour Second Symphony has never been performed in its entirety. The premiere performance by Kevin Bowyer, scheduled for June 7th, is projected to take between six and seven hours; if you're in Glasgow, make sure to be there!

It's easy to make fun of composers like this, of course - you shake your head at the quixotic madness that would lead a composer to write a seven-hour organ symphony, and switch the radio to a country station. When you actually listen to a work like Opus, then, everyone asks the same question: was it worth it?

Any opinion I present at this point must be taken with a grain of salt - I'm about halfway through listening to the work, and am writing this post as a break. I certainly can't judge whether a pianist, emerging from a couple of years in the practice room to perform the finished score, would judge his time well spent. I can only say, however, that Sorabji's music is much better than you'd expect. Yes, some of the fugues sound like Reger on steroids; yes, you do start to look at your watch once you get to the thirty-seventh variation of the sixth movement; but there's a real harmonic and contrapuntal invention here which kept me from throwing the score across the room. If nothing else, you have to be impressed by Sorabji's piano writing; the score is on three or four staves throughout, and with the sort of bravura writing that only a real virtuoso would be able to conceive.

Would I recommend Sorabji? Yes. Perhaps you should start with a shorter piece, however. If you insist on jumping right into this Everest of the piano repertoire, borrow a library copy like I did: a new copy of the John Ogdon recording will run you about $90.00.

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