John Ogdon at 50 Public triumph, private trauma: the peaks and troughs of John Ogdon’s life would have spelt disaster for many a performer but he approaches his 50th birthday with a full diary and new enthusiasm.  Keith Clarke reports

John Ogdon was never much of a one for words.  Giving an interview at a recording session in the early seventies he sat quietly listening to my questions, politely replying, but never pursuing a point.  His element, you soon came to understand, was music.  Fifteen years on, the passion is the same.  Once more there is the quiet consideration of questions but at the first opportunity he’s out of his chair and across the room to pull scores out of the cupboard to thrust into your hand.  The music is the thing.

At times the music seems to have been the only thing that John Ogdon had to cling on to.  The story of his struggle with mental illness needs no retelling here.  The years of inner turmoil would have kept most artists off the concert platform for the rest of their lives yet even at his lowest Ogdon never stopped playing.  It tells us a lot about the man that he was able to fight his way back and these days, with a healthy diary of engagements, he is fully reciprocating the warmth and goodwill which he clearly stimulates in his audiences.

London audiences who missed his Rakhmaninov Second Piano Concerto at the Festival Hall in November have three chances to hear him in the coming weeks before he leaves for recitals in Italy and Germany.  On 24 January he plays the Schumann Concerto at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the Orchestra of St John’s Smith Square under John Lubbock.  Ogdon says he is greatly looking forward to playing with Lubbock and they work together again on 9 February when Ogdon plays his own Piano Concerto plus the Rakhmaninov Paganini Variations with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall.

He is back at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 22 February for a 50th birthday celebration concert with Barry Tuckwell, Tamás Vásáry, John Wallace, Raphael Sommes and Elizabeth Harwood in a programme which includes Peter Maxwell Davies’ Sonata (which Ogdon premiered over 30 years ago) and his own Sonata for solo flute.

The emergence of more of his own compositions is something that pleases Ogdon, although he doesn’t see composing ever coming before his playing work. ‘Yes, I’m deIighted that more pieces are being heard.  I do enjoy composing, espcially for the piano — I look on composing as a hobby that I enjoy.  I devote myself more to playing and treat composition as a spare-time thing.’

Apart from the works that have already been heard Ogdon owns to ‘one or two operas with piano accompaniment’.  One of them, as yet untitled, will be performed by East Midlands Music Theatre in October as part of the Mansfield Festival.  Ogdon will play the piano part in the first performance and the rest of the programme will be given over to his piano music which he will be playing together with Stephen Windos.

Another work in the melting pot is a two-piano work.’lt’s a sketch on St Dunstan and the devil which Malcolm Williamson did an opera on,’ says Qgdon. ‘It’s a lovely story about how the devil wants to destroy the people of Maidstone in Kent and they turn the clocks back an hour so that he mistakes the time.  Somebody tweaks his nose with hot tongs and off he goes!’

But it is the playing that has the major place in Ogdon’s scheme of things and he says he finds his audiences very supportive. ‘There is a marvellous rapport and they’re very responsive to modern music, more than they used to be I think.  Works of Szymanowski and Busoni they take very well and Scriabin has almost become an established classic, hasn’t he?’ (Szymanowski is a particular favourite — ‘a marvellous composer’ — Ogdon had plans at one stage to launch a Szymanowski Society with Vladimir Ashkenazy as president.)

The attraction of contemporary music has been with Ogdon since his Royal Northern College of Music days where he first established a reputation for tackling anything that came his way.  The enthusiasm for his current repertoire is infectious as the scores come tumbling out of the cupboard — Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH (‘Ronald’s pieces are marvellous’); Trevor Hold’s Kemp’s Nine Daies Wonder (‘a tremendous piano piece about a friend of Shakespeare who dances from London to Norwich in nine days and is welcomed by the mayor’); Sorabji’s Opus clavicembalisticum.

‘That’s a very fine piece.  When we were students Maxwell Davies very kindly gave me his copy of it.  It’s rather like the Busoni Fantasia contrappuntistica with a lot of fugues and contrasted harmonic sections.  It treats the piano very brilliantly and it’s somewhat a matter of luck whether one can hit the right notes!’

Ogdon says he would like to spend more time on contemporary British piano music — Robert Simpson and Alexander Goehr are other names on his lips — and his enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed at the British Music Information Centre which is mounting an exhibition as a 50th birthday tribute to Ogdon and his contribution to British 20th-century music as composer and performer.  The free exhibition runs throughout January (Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm) at 10 Stratford Place, London WI.

Aside from the music of the 20th century Ogdon is showing renewed interest in classical composers and says that strangely his illness acted as a catalyst. ‘It gave me a perspective.  I think it made me look more closely at the meaning behind the notes.  I found that I had much more devotion to the music of Bach and Mozart than formally.’

‘Bach does seem to be a marvellous river from which all things flow and I love to play Mozart too.  I had the honour of studying with Denis Matthews who is a noted Mozart person.  I think the wonderful unexpectedness and the written grace of Mozart is something most unusual.’

Ogdon has never sought to hide his years of instability.  In his wife Brenda Lucas’s biographical portrait he wrote: ‘I believe that it is in frankness, not concealment, that my integrity, and even my duty, lie.’ Now the story is to be retold in a BBC drama, due for transmission later this year, and it is a measure of his generosity of spirit that Ogdon encouraged the scheme in the hope of helping others.

‘It’s directed by Phillip Hinchcliffe with a very good script by William Humble and I hope it might have educational value, a helpful aspect to it.  I think personally that it was very good that this whole thing came out into the open.  I feel that there was some time lost but you always hope you can make a fresh start and it’s been very inspiring to see various friends also making a fresh start in composing and playing.  I’ve had a lot of help and I feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to so many people.’

In July this year Ogdon returns to the Proms, playing the Shostakovich Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings with John Wallace.  It will be almost 30 years since he made his London debut, playing Busoni’s Piano Concerto at the Proms.

His enthusiasm for Busoni is a constant thread through his life and on his mantelpiece sits a framed photograph of Egon Petri, the Busoni pupil who Ogdon studied with in his formative years.  Petri was a figure of awe for the young Ogdon, but evidently a man with a sense of humour.

‘He used to put down in his recital programmes: Sonata in F minor Op 2 No 1 by Beethoven.  And then in brackets: (Or any of the other 31)!’ Ogdon’s hearty laugh at the memory is a reassuring sign from another great man of the keyboard.