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As it is now 25 years since John Oogdon’s death, many of the younger generation will have only scant knowledge of either his phenomenal achievements or the mental affliction which blighted his life from the early 1970s onwards. For this reason alone Charles Beauclerk’s book should be read by everyone. Generally Beauclerk is a sympathetic guide and one who has taken infinite pains in researching the pianist’s ancestors, childhood and career. Ogdon’s illness was hereditary – his father was a dangerous schizophrenic who once attempted to murder his wife with an axe – so the 20 pages which the author devotes to his grandparents and parents are especially important.

Beauclerk is sometimes guilty of over-writing, the over-use of colloquialisms and journalese (‘Brenda felt the first muted pangs of dread’ is typical of the less successful imagery) and some of his passages of psychoanalysis strike me as strained or rather pretentious. The many compensations include a rich archive of anecdotes – relating to Ogdon’s quite incredible feats of memory, or his absent-mindedness, shabbiness and charming naivety. My favourite story is of the political brouhaha surrounding the 1962 Tchaikovsky competition. The American Van Cliburn had won in 1958 so the Soviet authorities coerced the reluctant Ashkenazy into entering to ensure russian success this time around. The audiences soon recognised Ogdon’s genius and screamed for the prize to be his. Consternation behind the scenes was finally resolved by a joint award.

Peter Donohoe is one of many who were touched by Ogdon’s deeply likeable nature – ‘His gentle and generous personality shines through music of all styles.’ Beauclerk is fair in his treatment of John’s wife Brenda. Apparently she is not happy with her portrayal by ‘some of John’s friends and colleagues’ but readers will form their own impressions. There are 25 photographs, no music examples and just a handful of errors – Constance Lambert (index), Artur Rubinstein etc.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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