Godzilla of the Piano Repertoire

The work is intended for pianist-musicians of the highest order. Indeed, its intellectual and technical difficulties place it beyond the reach of any others. It is a weighty and serious contribution to the literature of the piano, for serious musicians and serious listeners only.

The above is the proud caveat appended to the score, by the clearly not-very-modest composer, of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum, which I heard Jonathan Powell play at Merkin Hall last night. For those who’ve neglected your education in esoteric composers, and shame on you if you have, Sorabji (1892-1988) is a composer of Parsi, English, and Spanish descent, semi-famous for having written some of the longest and most mammothly difficult works in the piano repertoire, many of them ranging from two to eight hours long. Opus Clavicembalisticum is the best-known, with a couple of recordings to its credit (Geoffrey Douglas Madge on Bis, John Ogdon on Altarus). Since Sorabji wrote it in 1930, it’s reportedly been publicly performed in its entirety only 11 times; I missed Madge’s performance in Chicago in the mid-1980s and have kicked myself for years, so I determined not to make that mistake again. (I didn’t, however, hear Sorabji’s Symphony No. 5 for piano played by Donna Amato June 17 – it conflicted with Larry Polansky’s concert here at Bard.) I wasn’t completely overwhelmed, but I did become a confirmed Sorabji fan – I’ll tell you how and why.

Lots o’ multisyllable words for you today. Ready? Opus Clavicembalisticum is a four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza loosely patterned after Ferruccio Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which is itself based on the final, unfinished fugue from Bach’s The Art of Fugue. (I’ve always considered Busoni’s piece hot stuff too – my own I’itoi Variations for two pianos is largely an homage to it.) Opus Clavicembalisticum is in 12 movements, four of them fugues: there’s a regular fugue, then one on two subjects, one on three, and finally, in case anyone is still standing, one on four subjects. Scattered around these are an Introit, a Chorale Prelude (following Busoni’s model, and quoting the Bach themes Busoni used), two cadenzas, two interludes – one of them a mammoth movement divided into Toccata, Adagio, and Passacaglia with 81 Variations – and a Coda. Whew.

First, let me say that the feat of playing Opus Clavicembalisticum is somewhat analogous, in difficulty and preparation time, to, oh, say, playing all of Chopin’s Etudes at the same time while juggling, or perhaps carving Mount Rushmore single-handedly with a butter knife. Powell is an extremely careful but energetic player, who hammered through the piece with relentless momentum, yet who also clearly differentiated all the themes, always keeping a wide range of dynamic levels going at once; he abundantly earned the instant standing ovation he received. He seemed more of a rigorous machine-like player than an expressive one, but Sorabji may not give the pianist much choice in this case. There is much more moto perpetuo than rubato here, low-energy moments are rare enough to be delightfully refreshing when they arrive, and Sorabji’s phrases are counted out not in measures, but in minutes. Powell seemed a little irked at climbing this Everest for a Merkin Hall that was only about a third full, but he was playing for fourscore fans diehard enough to have satisfied even the exacting Sorabji – not a soul walked out. Few seemed to even breathe, and several followed scores.

Sorabji’s music inhabits the harmonic soundworld of Busoni, Scriabin, Szymanowski, though a little more like any two of those composers played at once. His slow movements absolutely drip with lush exoticism. If you’re looking for an entree into Opus Clavicembalisticum, I especially recommend Movement 9, the Toccata, Adagio, and Passacaglia – the Toccata is a diabolical, dissonant blast, and the Adagio’s harmonies, constantly skirting atonality yet never quite going there, melt in the ear. It’s the fugues that are Sorabji’s problem. The four long fugue movements boast ten themes among them, all at least 30 notes long, seemed to me, and none of them hummable. Bruckner never ends a movement until you’ve heard the inversion of the theme, but Sorabji went him several better: each fugue had to state the original form, retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion, exceeding textbook requirements. Through their very quantity the dense undergrowth of countersubjects mostly merged into what Schoenberg called “rebaba counterpoint” – “rebaba” being allegedly the word (“rhubarb,” in some accounts) that Hollywood film directors told actors in crowd scenes to repeat to create the effect of indistinguishable murmuring. The piece kept drawing me in, then each fugue exhaled me at a steady rate.

So soon after this centennial anniversary of Bloomsday, it would be tempting to call Sorabji, for all his circuitous layered meanings, the James Joyce of music, but not really insightful. At least in Opus Clavicembalisticum, he’s more the gargantuan endpoint of a certain brand of neoclassicism – not the ironic branch a la Stravinsky, but another stream less well established in America, one that includes Busoni, Max Reger, and Alexander Zemlinsky. All of those guys tend to write very busy fugues with not very distinctive themes: Zemlinsky’s Fourth String Quartet is marked by a typically nervous, ultrachromatic fugue, Reger’s fugues are some of his less wonderful movements, and Busoni had the sense in Fantasia Contrappuntistica to stick with Bach’s themes. Yet all of these composers could write adagios gorgeously dripping with off-kilter notes: I recommend in this regard Busoni’s Elegy for his mother, Reger’s Romantic Suite and Der Einsiedler, and Zemlinsky’s Op. 13 songs. Gorgeous stuff.

And the most gorgeous Sorabji I’ve found is not in Opus Clavicembalisticum. Advance press indicated that Powell is issuing a multi-gigabyte series of Sorabji recordings, and I went out before the concert and found his Altarus three-disc set of the two-and-a-half-hour Fourth Sonata, also circa 1930. (Sorabji gave the first performance in 1930, Powell the second in 2002.) The piece is a little lighter than Clavicembalisticum, and more consistently engaging. The first movement is Scriabinesque in a massive sort of way, and the 35-minute adagio – I pause to gasp in wonder – is absolutely heavenly. A depiction of the garden of an Italian count he visited, its sonorities drip langorously into the ear, with an incredibly prolific invention of arabesque detail. The third movement contains two fugues, but they are not ambitious by Sorabji standards, and followable. And even Sorabji’s fugues, I have to admit, have elements to admire: they are written in the pose of an inexhaustible conversationalist, someone who hardly ever ends a thought without suddenly remembering another tangent to launch into.

So I am now completely sold on Sorabji as a major figure, if clearly not one to everyone’s taste: “for serious musicians and serious listeners only.” I highly recommend the Fourth Sonata as an easier, more seductive entry point than Opus Clavicembalisticum, and possibly as an exercise to build up the stamina for the larger work. Sorabji’s scores, which were difficult to obtain until his death in 1988, became impossible for awhile afterward, but some are apparently available through the Sorabji archive, and I am in search of them. And I will avidly scarf up Jonathan Powell’s recordings as they appear and let you know about them. Postclassical? Sorabji is post-everything, a one-man musical apocalypse.