horizontal line

This August marks 25 years since the passing of John Ogdon, the talented British pianist who was tormented by mental health issues throughout his relatively short life. There have been a peppering of commemorations: a tribute recital given by Peter Donohoe (broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and later on BBC Four); the documentary John Ogdon – Living with Genius (BBC Four, reviewed p78); Charles Beauclerk’s new biography Piano Man (discussed in issue 25 and reviewed p71); and Sony’s newly released six-CD collection of Ogdon’s RCA recordings.

The set is of interest primarily for the ‘unplayable’ Alkan Concerto for Solo Piano, recorded in 1969 and released in 1972. This was Ogdon’s final studio session for RCA; in 1973 he suffered a breakdown and was subsequently dogged by ill health and frequent hospitalisation. Egon Petri, with whom Ogdon had studied, gave one of the first performances of the concerto in full and Ronald Smith recorded parts of the work, but Ogdon was the first to record it in its entirety.

The word ‘demonic’ is often applied to Ogdon’s interpretations and that description is apt here. The first movement is an explosion of colour, texture and sheer bravura. Ogdon whizzes through, shaving nearly two minutes off of Marc-André Hamelin’s version (Hyperion), but the frenetic passages are firmly under his fingers. The darkness of the Adagio induces goose bumps, its haunting lyricism both tender and terrible. The three-against-four polyrhythms of the third movement are little more than a curiosity to Ogdon. I’m told there are numerous wrong notes in this movement – in a performance as exhilarating as this, who cares?

Wrong notes also abound in the Liszt, in a recording made during a recital in Japan in 1972 (released for the first time outside of Japan). Liszt was a stalwart of Ogdon’s repertoire – perfect for his natural virtuosity – and here the pianist displays pure musical adrenaline. Try Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 and Grand galop chromatique, where he achieves a fine balance of showmanship and musicality.

Ogdon made a name for himself as a champion of contemporary composers, in part because of his astonishing ability to memorise new and complex scores almost instantaneously. (Piano Man tells of one page-turner who sat dumbstruck as Ogdon read ahead to the following page, while performing the previous one.) Peter Mennin’s Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, was premiered in 1958 but remained unrecorded until Ogdon released this version, a full ten years later. A finely crafted experiment in chromatic counterpoint, the concerto is a must-hear for pianophiles. In recent years, Mennin has often been unfairly dismissed as an unmemorable modernist. In Ogdon’s hands – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Igor Buketoff – this notion is blown out of the water.

Similarly, Richard Yardumian’s 1957 Passacaglia, Recitative and Fugue, recorded in 1971 (on the same disc), will intrigue and inspire. Ogdon recorded the work a second time with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Berglund in 1976 (his last record for EMI), but this was a difficult time for the pianist and the RCA version given here is largely thought to surpass the remake.

Elsewhere, a selection of piano works by Carl Nielsen (released 1968) sees Ogdon at the height of his pianistic powers. Nielsen – while perhaps not quite a household name – is more familiar to music fans today than when the recording was released as an LP. Peter Seivewright (Naxos), Martin Roscoe (Hyperion) and Leif Ove Andsnes (Virgin Classics) have all set this repertoire to disc, but Ogdon’s original interpretation sets a high benchmark. The Chaconne is particularly original.

The remaining discs comprise the first two Rachmaninov Sonatas (1968) and Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ (1969). Ogdon recorded Rachmaninov’s solo works for ASV shortly before his death but they are sadly not his best performances, with blurred phrasing and handfuls of wrong notes. At the time of their release, the RCA recordings were considered revelatory; nowadays the repertoire is ubiquitous. However, both CDs stand the test of time.

The six discs are packaged and programmed in facsimile reproductions of the original LP releases. A short essay, John Ogdon: the Gentle Giant, is provided by Jed Distler in the accompanying booklet notes. (‘Gentle giant’ is the go-to description for Ogdon. It seems entirely misplaced, not to mention rather patronising. Those interested in a more detailed back story should see Beauclerk’s biography, which – gossip and intrigue aside – is more illuminating.) It is a shame that Sony, like other labels, has fallen into the trap of reproducing the LP cover at CD size without providing the text elsewhere. I did procure a magnifying glass to read a portion of the notes, Sherlock-style. The original liner notes are part of the enjoyment of a historical recording and it is unfortunate that they are so often overlooked (see Comment, p13).

But do not judge a book by its cover. This set is a wonderful tribute and comes highly recommended. The cover price (£16.99 on iTunes; from £24 for physical CDs) is worth it for the Alkan alone.

CLAIRE JACKSON Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Piano International, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing