Opus Clavicembalisticum

John Ogdon (piano)

Altarus Records: AIR-CD9075 (May 1989)

Web page for Altarus Records

Cd cover image Opus Clavicembalisticum

Duration: 286:50

Comments: This recording features in many published items on Ogdon, including obituaries of Sorabji (1988) and Ogdon himself (1989). Ogdon’s last planned recording, Sorabji’s mammoth cycle of 100 Transcendental Studies, also for Altarus, would have occupied 7 CDs. He began work on it when his Opus Clavicembalisticum discs appeared. Alas, it was not to be. Less than 3 months later, the world was deprived of one of the greatest pianists of all time. Ogdon’s final Sorabji project is now under way with Swedish pianist Fredrik Ullén who will record it on the Swedish BIS label. Originally released on 4CDs, but rereleased in 2004 as a 5CD set.

Track listing

  • Track 1-11: Opus Clavicembalisticum (286:50)
  • Track 1: I Introito (2:49)
  • Track 2: II Preludio-Corale (13:20)
  • Track 3: III Fuga I quator vocibus (12:36)
  • Track 4: IV Fantasia (4:19)
  • Track 5: V Fuga II duplex (18:06)
  • Track 6: VI Interludium primum (Thema cum XLIX variationibus) (58:09)
  • Track 7: VII Cadenza I (4:22)
  • Track 8: VIII Fuga tertia triplex (45:16)
  • Track 9: IX Interludium alterum (72:58)
  • Track 10: X Cadenza II (3:04)
  • Track 11: XI Fuga IV quadruplex – XII Coda-Stretta (51:51)


  • “… (in) the excellent accompanying book … documentation is admirable. Good sound … mellow Bösendorfer sonority … I doubt … anyone who heard … Ogdon at his best will ever hear anyone to match him … not Horowitz … Arrau … Richter … (he) was one of the handful of pianists … you can instantly identify from the sound they make … easily the most massive intellect I have ever come across … a mind … razor-sharp and lightning-fast … Altarus … for whom (he) made most of his last recordings, including that stunning Sorabji … astonished to find how much tenderness, how much sheer beauty Ogdon found in the score” (CD Review)
  • “… sold out fast and is here reissued with an updated booklet … Often pushed beyond the limits of human capacity, Ogdon does his mighty best on the work’s behalf and Altarus supports him lavishly from studio to final design.” (Classic CD)
  • “… here (in one of his last recordings) he offers one of the most remarkable pianistic displays ever captured on record … Ogdon is downright astonishing … He can convey a profound stillness in the luminous Adagio, while in apocalyptic moments he goes beyond anything I have heard emanating from a single keyboard … this recording demonstrates that there was an authentic greatness in (Sorabji’s) … vision.” (Classical USA)
  • “… the sound on Ogdon’s recording is spectacular … much of (his playing) is inspired beyond belief … a distinct bonus … is a sixty-four page book, containing important essays … among much else … we must be grateful that this recording was made. It is at times stupendous … colossally affirmative … Ogdon is brilliant in this unique work, which he had known and loved for more than thirty years.” (Fanfare)
  • “… cannon-shot climaxes … incantatory stillness … Messiaenic exaltation … Heiliger Dankgesang inwardness … awesome inner intensity … almost manic activity … Ogdon’s wildness has the force of a brainstorm … cavernous spaces … thunderous detonations to clinch structural points at either end of the dynamic spectrum … Altarus’s recording impressively captures this massiveness … handsome 62-page booklet immensely impressive … should compel reassessment of Sorabji’s … personality … also says something fundamental about … Ogdon’s colossal contribution to British musical life.” (Gramophone)
  • “Ogdon’s projection … the most remarkable aspect of his interpretation of this … score … one of the great pianistic feats of our time” (Hi-Fi News)
  • “… presented in a large box which includes an illustrated book which provides a thorough background to this astonishing work … superbly executed by Ogdon … will appeal to all lovers of piano music, particularly the unusual.” (Jersey Evening Post)
  • “… phenomenal mastery of the teeming notes … a particularly sure sense of the most significant thread(s) in … very complicated textures …” (Music and Musicians)
  • “Altarus was taken by surprise when the initial 1,000 copies … sold out quickly … the huge accompanying booklet has been revised, too.” (Music Week)
  • “Since this recording, which has attained semi-legendary status in the annals both of Sorabji’s ongoing rise in public profile and of the strange history and legacy of the unique performer John Ogdon, was made — almost 20 years ago now — Sorabji scholarship and performance practice have grown out of all recognition. Yet there is still very much an important place in the catalogue for this, still the most heaven-storming, quirky, sometimes infuriating, often breathtakingly brilliant, account of Sorabji’s most famous work. Ogdon was quite simply a pianist sui generis, and there is very little point in even comparing him with anybody else. The risks he takes in this colossal work — tempi on the verge of total immobility or exhilarating, breakneck speed; dynamic contrasts between the edge of inaudibility and volcanic explosiveness — are tremendous, but such was the scale on which his imagination worked — similar, one is tempted to believe, to the composer’s own — that, controversial as they may be they far more often succeed, and succeed magnificently, than misfire. All the material in the original edition booklet is here (100 pages of it), with corrections and updating, and the sound, which always captured Ogdon’s huge sonorities with atmosphere and precision, is even more vividly presented in this new 24-bit remastering from the original session tapes. For a true and complete picture of the composer, now rapidly emerging as one of the very greatest and most original figures in 20th-century music, one cannot avoid taking account of this truly unique recording.” (Records International)
  • “Ogdon’s staggeringly brilliant recording … an epic journey … spectacular feats of virtuosity, discovers immensely still, quiet pools of lyricism, risks being buried under avalanches of notes and pummelled by all manner of eruptive violences; and afterwards, is never quite the same again …
    … Sorabji’s … contrapuntal summa … Ogdon’s staggering realisation is a marvellous monument to his performing career” (Sunday Times)
  • “… (Sorabji’s) centre-stage attraction crystallised through John Ogdon’s recent performances, and … recording, of his synoptic transcendental pianotechnicon … a staggering and unavoidable pianistic phenomenon … if any interpreter could silence one’s doubts, it would be Ogdon … an interpretation that accumulates its own authority and displays a (literally!) tireless enthusiasm from first to last … a feat of pianism so astonishing that it beggars any attempt at description. Ogdon’s pedalling alone … so vital to the rendering of Sorabji’s multi-layered textures … would demand a substantial essay … altogether a handsome presentation for a release whose historic importance is likely to become ever clearer with the passage of time … thank God that Altarus had the guts and gumption to record (Ogdon) in OC and the Busoni Fantasia Contrappuntistica in time … in his prime in works with which he will forever be associated, in recordings which will endure as signal events in the history of pianism … perhaps more than any of Ogdon’s achievements in the recorded repertoire, these extraordinary discs of Busoni and Sorabji constitute his most fitting monument.” (Tempo)
  • “… (Ogdon’s) determination to go down with all guns blazing is impressive … the playing merits any critical superlative you care to choose … The excellence of Altarus’ recording quality is a further bonus …” (The Independent)
  • “Ogdon’s physical and mental stamina in staying the course throughout … this gigantic work is … to be wondered at … (his) marvellous musical sensitiveness … perfect control of pianissimo … fully exploited … most affecting partnership of composer and interpreter … hardly worthwhile searching for adjectives which might fittingly describe (his) performance … one of the very few players in the world capable of satisfying (Sorabji’s) outrageous demands … his intellectual grasp … matched by … clearly perceptible sympathy with its spirit … Sorabji writes from the heart as well as the head” (The Organ)
  • “… the main event … Ogdon’s London performance of Opus Clavicembalisticum in 1988 … indelible occasion … perhaps the greatest of that astonishing pianist’s many achievements … luckily the four-and-three-quarter-hours score was recorded before Ogdon’s death in 1989.” (The Wire)