Opus Clavicembalisticum – 16 September

Opus Clavicembalisticum

Jonathan Powell (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 September, 2003
Venue: Purcell Room, London

There are many fascinating aspects to the life and music of British-born Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) – not least the name itself – such that a performance of any one of his numerous major works will always be an event. Opus Clavicembalisticum – composed during 1929-30 – has, since its inception, been the work by which he is best known, though this concert saw only its tenth (probable) complete public performance. In 1988, the Park Lane Group mounted one such account by John Ogdon, a flawed but magisterial rendition that has resonated in the memory for reasons other than the purely musical. 15 years on, the PLG has again done the composer proud with a very different but likely even more convincing interpretation by Jonathan Powell, whose advocacy has placed him among the forefront of younger pianists concerned with the evolving of a Sorabji ’performing tradition’.

And OC is a work which puts a premium on its interpreter’s physical and mental stamina. At a shade under 4 hours 30 minutes (excluding ’breaks’), and with a degree of contrapuntal complexity likely surpassed only by the composer himself in later works, it is not to be approached lightly. A stylistic synthesis of the harmonic language of Scriabin and Busoni is harnessed to a Bachian density but also clarity of thought, resulting in music where sheer proliferation of detail is held in check by the logical following-through of an all-embracing compositional process.

It was this aspect in particular that Powell brought out so strongly. The motivic fragments of the opening ’Introito’ were pungently delineated, accumulated momentum being maintained though the Busonian resonances of the ’Preludio Corale’ and ’Fantasia’. By contrast, the two fugues of Part One seemed a shade tentative in their unfolding: while the austere ’Fuga I’ responds to understatement, the mellifluous part-writing of ’Fuga a due soggetti’ felt subdued to the extent that the first part closed on a decidedly provisional note. Similarly, the quixotic sequence of 49 variations that forms the ’Interludium Primum’ opening Part Two seemed to hang fire as it progressed, though ’Cadenza I’ had the right improvisatory freedom, and Powell brought a tautness to the harmonic rhythm of the ’Fuga a tre soggetti’ that sustained itself effortlessly through the thoughtful pacing of this section.

The most expansive and intricate portion of OC, Part Three also brings the richest musical rewards. The ’Toccata’ and ’Adagio’ that open ’Interludium alterum’ amply distil the Dionysian and Apollonian qualities of Sorabji’s musical make-up, qualities which the 81 variations on a passacaglia, which follow, both dissect and intensify. Powell sustained momentum unerringly here, and found scintillation aplenty in ’Cadenza II’ – leading to an account of the ’Fuga a quattro soggetti’ which audibly drew together thematic strands as it amassed textural intricacy and rhythmic velocity. It remained for the ’Coda stretta’ to round off the work in sonically uncompromising yet emotionally equivocal terms.

Equivocal because even when thought and expression are brought so completely into parity, as at the close, the music exudes a defiance bordering on exasperation. At the limits of human perception reached but not overcome? At the nagging sense that such compositional elaboration might be as artifice disguising the absence of real emotional engagement? Questions which, while worth pondering, in no way detract from the sheer authority of Powell’s performance of this musical leviathan.

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