RACHMANINOV - BUSONI, SBT 1295
Études-Tableaux, Op. 33
Études-Tableaux, Op. 39
Sonatina No.6 Chamber Fantasy on Carmen (1920)
Elegies/Elegien 1907-08 No.4 Turandots Frauengemach (Intermezzo)
Variations & Fugue on Chopin's Prelude in C minor, Op.22
SLEEVE NOTES by BRYCE MORRISON, 2003
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.
Both Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Busoni (1866-1924) were central to John Ogdon's immense repertoire, their status as great composer-pianists undoubtedly appealing to his own multi-faceted gifts and nature. But listening to his 1974 recording of Rachmaninov's complete Etudes-Tableaux you sense an almost palpable, frightening empathy for some of the composer's darkest pages. Rarely in my experience have I heard the forces beneath Rachmaninov's florid and intricate pianism unleashed with such ferocity. Here Rachmaninov is made to sound as indelibly Russian as Mussorgsky giving his words, "I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperement and outlook..." a force and eloquence beyond their outward simplicity. By 1974 Ogdon's declining health made recording a hazardous, unpredictable occupation but if his playing on this occasion took him close to the rim or edge it remained a blazing, incandescent act of re-creation. Unstable, frequently paranoid, often depressed and stonily pre-occupied, he was after all playing music by a composer much given to violent mood swings, a man who once admitted in one of his letters his feeling that someone might come down his chimney and murder him.
Certainly you are made more than aware of Rachmaninov's title, of how his picture-studies capture alternating states of crazed jubilation, violence and pessimism. What fierce and inexorable momentum in the heavy military treat of Etude No.1, and how typical the lack of teasing sophistication in the soaring lyricism of No.2. Here is no outwardly appealing easing and bending of the melodic line but an uncompromising strength of purpose. Even the C minor Etude (one of two reinstated in Op.33 after the composer's death), where funeral chimes evolve into a starry and assuaging dream world, is never made a place for timeless reverie, though Ogdon's sudden 'give' or generosity of impulse in the closing bars quietly illuminates his entire performance. The fourth Etude with its echo of the First Piano Sonata (also in D minor) emerges with a sinister undertow beneath its dance-like measures and in No.6 Ogdon's virtuosity unleashes a Siberian whirlwind abruptly terminated. There is even a touch of savagery behind the outwardly festive brilliance of No.7, a haunting response to the echoes of Russian liturgical chant in No.8 and a searing defiance in the wildly dissonant concluding Etude.
Glorious as the eight Etudes of Op.33 undoubtedly are, they are excelled in complexity and richness by the nine comprising Op.39. Here Ogdon's relatively moderate tempo for No.1 allows for an additional sense of its storming rhetoric. His desolation at the close of the first of the two A minor Etudes underlines its re-working of the Dies Irae and his concern for the restless tempest-tossed pages of No.3 have little to do with a more conventional grace and fluency. He locates an irony that looks ahead to Prokofiev (outwardly a sworn enemy of Rachmaninov, inwardly a secret admirer) and takes the rhetoric of No.5. with its stabbing trills and pulverizing chords, by storm. The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, supposedly the inspiration for the wild chase of No.6, is given with a menace beyond even the most sinister of fairy tales and in No.7, the most remarkable of all the Etudes, the harshness of Rachmaninov's elegy and 'lamentoso' outcries, are only temporarily modified by yet another chant echoing the Russian church. Yet there is gentleness, too, in the swaying phrases of No.8 where open-hearted nostalgia is so startlingly altered into 'scherzoness' or ironic playfulness, so central to Prokofiev's art. The opening of No.9 swings to and fro like some giant pendulum launching a ferocity and ebullience that nothing can quell, the reverse of the conservatism with which Rachmaninov is relentlessly credited.
Finally Busoni and music far removed from Rachmaninov's energy and neurasthenia. Yet even in the Carmen Fantasie the whirl of Don Jose's Flower Song and Carmen's Habanera is resolved in deathly echoes of former gaiety. The brief Turandot Fantasie, the fourth of seven Elegies where, in Busoni's words he shed his immaturity and "finally put down his personal vision" is once more alive with an ambiguity as central to the composer's vision as it is to late Liszt. Here, the dreaming introduction (andantino sereno) gives way to an intricate reworking of Greensleeves (sufficiently historic and popular to gain a mention in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor). According to Edward J Dent, Busoni's biographer, the composer believed that "Greensleeves was an old Chinese theme suitable for inclusion in his Turandot Fantasie".
Busoni's Variations on Chopin's C minor Prelude, Op.28 No.20 are a revision of music first composed in 1884 when Busoni was eighteen. Later in 1922 he rejected his Op.22 as "not worth saving" only to recant, recasting it with a 'Faustian' introduction, a 'locus classicus of free tonality' written in three part canon. The differences in the two versions are considerable and, as Anthony Beaumont put it, "the formalism of the apprentice is replaced by the economy of the master" and, more enigmatically, "the smile of the wise man". Busoni's virtuosity remains serious rather than frivolous throughout, reminding you that the twin polarities behind his original and formidable genius were Bach and Liszt. Described by Alfred Brendel as music "written in ink that, as it were, begins to glow only when the right eye falls on it", it also only achieves its apotheosis in the right pianist's hands.
John Ogdon's 1961 recording launched one of the most sensational of all musical careers. Here is playing as precise and crystelline as it is vivacious and evocative. Whether rough or smooth, wild or exact, gentle or powerful, on one of his great or less than great days, Ogdon could always turn your preconceptions topsy-turvy and his dramatic, indeed, daemonic genius (there is no other word for the quality that emanated from his being) was never in doubt.