MENDELSSOHN - IRELAND - SCOTT, SBT 1288
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 25 in G Minor
Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 40 in D Minor
Rondo Brillante, Op. 29 in E flat
John Ogdon, piano
London Symphony Orchestra
Aldo Ceccato, conductor
The Holy Boy · April
Lotus Land, Op.47 No.1
Danse nègre, Op.58 No.5
SLEEVE NOTES by BRYCE MORRISON, 2002
If asked to name an internationally celebrated British pianist who was equally at home in Alkan or Beethoven, Yardumian or Brahms, someone whose recordings range effortlessly from Messiaens's complete Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jesus to Cyril Scott's First Piano Concerto, an artist who could as easily be heard in Peter Mennin's manic whirlwind of a Concerto as in Fauré's subtly complex Ballade, few would hesitate in their reply. John Ogdon's authority in such a dauntingly inclusive repertoire was one of the marvels of the music profession.
Born in Mansfield, Nottingham, Ogdon included Iso Elinson, Gordon Green and Denis Matthews among his teachers, though even these distinguished figures were among the first to admit that they were merely coaches and advisors, guiding to the best of their ability a talent of awe-inspiring proportions.
It was typical that at the age of eighteen Ogdon chose Busoni's massive, five movement Piano Concerto for his National Youth Orchestra audition and not only scaled its peaks but suggested a case of unjustified neglect. A champion of worthwhile rather than lost causes, he also chose a selection of Busoni's neglected solo works for his first EMI recording and with characteristic insight coupled them with Liszt's Dante Sonata and First Mephisto Waltz.
Appearances on the competition circuit followed and I well recall the raised eye-brows caused by Ogdon's programme in the 1956 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. None of the other contestants (that year they included Ashkenazy, John Browning, Cécile Ousset, Lazar Berman, Tamás Vásáry and Peter Frankl) programmed more demanding fare. Alkan's Etude for the left hand only, Brahms' Paganini Variations, Liszt's Dante as well as B minor Sonatas, Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata and Balakirev's Islamey were merely a few of the works offered. Later, in 1962, Ogdon won joint first prize with Vladimir Ashkenazy in Moscow's International Tchaikovsky Competition.
Like Walter Gieseking, Ogdon was a giant of a man whose playing was as notable for its delicacy and tonal subtlety as for its massive bravura. Alas, his subsequent and heaven-storming career was quickly clouded by ill-health, a mix of nervous strain and inherited schizophrenia. Despite a restorative period of calm, teaching at Indiana University, and much outstanding writing and composing, his stability was undermined, his acclaim shadowed by alternating hyper-activity, lethargy and introspection and by prolonged stretches in hospital. His story is told, in all its glory and tragedy in Virtuoso, written by his wife, the pianist Brenda Lucas and Michael Kerr, and was later made into a remarkable television film starring Alfred Molina and Alison Steadman. Ogdon's death at the age of fifty-two robbed the world of a musical titan and an artist of unlimited gifts.
At home in epic and miniature alike Ogdon could change, chameleon-like, from works such as Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum to the relatively gentle and scintillating world of the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos with an ease that was second nature. It has sometimes been said that the first movement of the G minor Concerto is too like a finale, but that depends very much on the pianist and Ogdon, with his weight and significance, never confuses Allegro con fuoco with Presto. In the gem of an Andante, truly 'music to soothe the savage breast' he is memorably alert to Mendelssohn's touching if very Victorian notion of poetry. His first entry is subtly inflected and in the pattering tranquillo figuration accompanying the cello's eloquent rise he shows once more that his playing was always as remarkable for its delicacy as for its strength. Here, surely, is a still and enchanting centre at the heart of Mendelssohn's volatile and playful resilience. The finale, too, is brilliant rather than hard-pressed so that the composer's charm remains intact, and if the odd ritenuto and espressivo marking is ignored in the interests of momentum and dazzling impetus it ensures an absence of all possible sentimentality so that, in Mendelssohn's words, "the whole thing goes like mad".
Edward Sackville-West's and Desmond Shawe-Taylor's once esteemed The Record Guide claims that the First Concerto requires little "beyond mellifluousness and an even touch" at once revealing that neither of them were pianists. They also took a dim view of the Second Concerto consigning it to a time "when Mendelssohn's youthful genius had already deserted him" and of the Rondo Brilliante, a "fribble" and "relentless trifle". Such picturesque dismissal ignores too many joyous, witty and wholly Mendelssohnian delights, particularly when offered with Ogdon's engagement and aplomb. He is notably elegant in the Concerto's principle and insinuating theme and, once again, makes the central Adagio a true oasis of calm. There is also a dramatic example, just before the finale's whirlwind finish, of Jorge Bolet's insistence that the best way to create a crescendo is to drop your sound the instant the instruction appears; the reverse of a more conventional, less vivid procedure.
Mendelssohn has always been popular with English pianists (at least five have recorded the Concertos) and his frequent performances given before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert underline the connection. I have therefore chosen from Ogdon's immense store of encores, four pieces by John Ireland (1879-1962) and Cyril Scott (1879-1970).
Ireland was a romantic idealist steeped in the celtic twilight evoked by his friend, the writer Arthur Machen. Simultaneously relishing and regretting an ever-receding past, his love for West Sussex and the Channel Islands was central to his bitter-sweet nostalgia and both The Holy Boy (the third of his Four Preludes) and April exude a personal magic where the discoveries of Debussy are transmuted into a wholly English idiom. The Holy Boy's outward simplicity is coloured by surprising harmonic shifts, a touch of astringency mitigating any possible mawkishness or easy sentiment. April on the other hand, evokes the composer's beloved English countryside, swept as it were with a constant play of light and shade, of rain and sunshine.
Finally, Cyril Scott's Lotus Land and Danse nègre which, as their titles declare, are witness to his love of the exotic, of langour and whimsy. Again, John Ogdon's performances are of a rare affection. Never content to folllow a conventional pianists's path, he explored the richest and most inclusive of all repertoires with tireless curiosity and devotion.