Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93)

Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23
in B-Flat Minor/b-moll/si bémol mineur
Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso; Allegro con spirito
Andantino semplice; Prestissimo
Allegro con fuoco

Dumka, Op. 59
Scene from Russian Country Life

Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
USSR State Symphony Orchestra
Konstantin Ivanov, conductor


Franz Liszt (1811-86)

Piano Concerto No. 1
in E-Flat/Es-dur/mi bémol majeur
Allegro maestoso
Quasi adagio
Scherzo: Allegretto vivace
Finale: Allegro marciale animato

Mephisto Waltz No. 1
“The Dance at the Village Inn”

John Ogdon, piano
USSR State Symphony Orchestra
Victor Dubrovsky, conductor


Russia has always excelled in the theatre, and the USSR wished to continue the glorious tradition.  When the Iron Curtain rose on the first international Tchaikovsky Competition, the orchestrators envisioned a riveting drama, showcasing wonderful new Soviet talent and proclaiming to the world the superiority of Socialist art.  There were two competitions at this 1958 marathon — one for violinists, the other for pianists.  The competition for violinists came off according to script: first place was won by Valéry Klimov, a typical product of the new Russian School, and an American, Joyce Fussier, received one of the lesser prizes.  The piano sweepstakes, on the other hand. ended in a startling upset, with a gangly 23-year-old Texan, Van Cliburn, victoriously claiming the coveted gold medal.  Even the three soviet members of the jury — Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Tatiana Nikolayeva — concurred.  The victorious Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade.

The Soviets could take consolation in the fact that young Cliburn had been nurtured in the studio of the esteemed Mme.  Rosina Lhévinne, the widow of the great Josef; both of them were exemplars of the great pianistic tradition of Imperialist Czarist Russia.  Still, the Soviets hoped to do better for themselves the next time, and as preparation for the second Tchaikovsky Competition unfolded, the powers that be decided to put their best foot forward for the 1962 sequel.  As early as 1959, the Soviet Ministry of Culture announced that all Soviet contestants were to he chosen in a rigorous pre-competition, only the best of them allowed to enter the main event.  One of the USSR’s brightest hopes was Vladimir Ashkenazy, a magical young pianist who had attracted worldwide attention with his controversial second prize at the 1955 Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  Many (the present writer included) thought that he should have been first, and the recording company EMI/Angel must have felt likewise (they issued all the performances in a boxed set in France, but only Ashkenazy’s disc in America.) By the time 1962 rolled around, Ashkenazy had already embarked on a major international career: he had consolidated his semi-victory in Warsaw by taking first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Concours in Brussels a year later: he had successfully toured the U.S. in 1958 and had made a number of new recordings.

In his absorbing memoirs, Beyond Frontiers, co-written with Jasper Parrott, Ashkenazy sheds a great deal of light on his “selection” and makes it plain that he competed under duress.

I told [the Ministry of Culture] that I did not want to enter, largely because it was not my sort of music.  They replied “What do you mean? How can you say that Tchaikovsky, our great Russian composer, is not your kind of music?” So, in the end I had to swallow my words — there was simply no way of making them understand that one artist may be more suited to play, say, Beethoven, than Tchaikovsky...

All in all, I was still very young and accustomed to accept that in the Soviet Union you do not resist pressure from above for too long if you do not want your life blighted in all sorts of ways.  Finally, as so much was expected of me, it was difficult not to take up the challenge: even though I knew it was not really the right competition for me to show my best work.

[But] even though I did not enjoy the competition because of all the artificial as well as musical pressures, once I had heard most of the other competitors I did feel that I had more to say, though whether I could win the first prize was another matter.  That, after all, depends so much on how you play on the particular day, and with attention centering on the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor in the last round, the outcome was particularly uncertain.  To play all that bravura, which I actually detest, you have to believe in it passionately as well as having the equipment.  And that type of octave playing was not really my thing — that was really for John Ogdon, Van Cliburn and Horowitz.

Ashkenazy’s account of the Tchaikovsky may not, by his own admission, have been that of “a true believer” but, as you can hear on this Melodiya recording made shortly after the 1962 competition, it is a refreshingly fleet, whimsical and elegant interpretation that takes its esteemed place alongside those of other “Patrician” players such as Richter, Solomon.  Clifford Curzon and, more recently, András Schiff.  As for the less often played Dumka, op. 59, a later (1886) composition dating from the same period as the Manfred Symphony, Op. 58, its emphasis is on soulful melancholy (in its outer sections) and playfulness (a central episode resembles the middle section of the Concerto’s second movement and also a passage in the string sextet Souvenir de Florence), both unmistakably congenial to the Ashkenazy temperament.

John Ogdon, the English pianist who was named co-winner with Ashkenazy, was likewise an established concert artist, having first attracted attention by playing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto (almost at sight!) as a last minute substitute for an indisposed soloist in Liverpool.  Ogdon made his London debut in 1958 at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts playing the Busoni Concerto, and he played a solo recital in that city later the same year.  A pupil of Iso Elinson at Manchester College in 1945, and, subsequently, of Egon Petri, Ilona Kabos, Gordon Greer.  Claude Biggs and Denis Matthews, Ogdon was noted for his adventurous repertory.  While still a student, he joined the Manchester New Music Group, offering first performances of works by Alexander Goehr, Maxwell Davies and himself.  And, like Ashkenazy, his 1962 win in Moscow was preceded by the 1961 Franz Liszt Prize in Budapest.

Brenda Lucas, a fine pianist who married Ogdon in 1960, wrote a deeply poignant book about her late husband.  One of Ogdon’s terrible misfortunes was that he had inherited acute schizophrenia, from which he died, aged 51, in 1989.  His performances here of the two Liszt works typifies his brand of structurally probing, no-nonsense music making.  It is interesting to note that, although Ogdon followed his one-time mentor Petri (a disciple of Busoni in playing Busoni’s edition of Liszt’s transcription of Paganini’s “La Campanella,” he opts for Liszt’s original in both of his recordings of the first Mephisto Waltz (subtitled “The Dance at the Village Inn”).

The judges at the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition included the Soviets Gilels (chairman), Lev Oborin and Yakov Flier, in addition to representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Poland.  They worked harmoniously and apparently made some wise decisions.

Eugène List, the American judge, wrote about the contest in The New York Times.  From the 66 pianists accepted into the competition, 52 of them actually participated in the first round. 23 passed to the second round, and of the 12 surviving finalists, six were Russians, two Americans, two French, and one each from China and England.  As in 1958, the first two rounds were decided on an arithmetical basis, by the point system running from 1 (very poor) to 25 (superlative).  For the final decisions, the point system was replaced by discussion of each participant’s artistic merits.  As Gilels said, “we are musicians, after all, not mathematicians.” All three rounds were taken into consideration, and votes for the first two rounds, signed by each juror, were delivered in a sealed envelope.

“But why two first prizes?” List asks. “I would like to point out that the prize structure is very flexible within its own framework.  There are eight prizes in all, no more.  But the jury can distribute them as it sees fit; either singly, doubly, or by splitting one.  Vladimir Ashkenazy and Ogdon, for instance, both got gold medals, and both received the full cash award.  Sixth prize, however, was split.  My own feeling is that the multiple prizes were given because of the extremely high level at the very top, and also in the spirit of generosity.  The idea was presented by Gilels, with the support of his two vice-chairmen.  The jury voted its affirmation.”

Some of the so-called “also-rans,” for those who are curious, later distinguished themselves careerwise: Susan Starr, the American who tied for second prize with Yin Chengzong of China, has had a moderately glamorous concert life; Roy Bogas, also from the U.S., found his niche in chamber music; Yin Chengzong, from China, recorded the notorious “Yellow River” concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra; and I particularly remember a lovely recording of Schubert’s D Major Sonata by the Russian pianist, Alexi Nasedkin.