OBITUARY, BY ALEXANDER GOEHR
GAZETTE, THE INDEPENDENT, 3rd August 1989
JOHN OGDON was a man of phenomenal natural gifts, though by character and temperament not ideally suited to the harsh and rigorous life of an international concert artist, writes Alexander Goehr.
Delighted as everyone was by his unprecedented success in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, it is impossible now not to reflect whether this sudden catapulting of an essentially modest and fragile personality into the limelight was a good thing. But at the same time one may wonder whether the public acclaim that greeted him made any real difference to him. I have hardly met any well-known performer who seemed as little affected by, or even interested in, the trappings of success.
Though he changed physically, hair turning grey at an early age and latterly looking like a very old man, John never seemed to alter very dramatically from the way he was as a student when I first met him. His interests and tastes remained much the same and the only defence he had against the bright lights was the inability of others to get much out of him. He was extremely shy and usually politely agreed to whatever was expected of him. He came to life either at the keyboard, or when asked about one of the limited subjects which really interested him. Then he talked quite freely, though carefully, hesitating to find the right words for deeply felt and often original views.
When I first met him at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the early Fifties, he was a big, clumsy, untidy, roly-poly boy. I was mainly attracted to him because he was not only able but willing to play anything I put up on the piano for him. Those were heady days for modern music: we were all excited by the compositions of Messiaen and Boulez and only John could actually play them. He was in regular demand in Richard Hall’s class to play everybody’s first attempt at composition. It was natural that when we formed a new music group in Manchester, he should be its mainstay.
Pianists who are interested in modern music and win their way into the world of big-time are, to put it mildly, discouraged from promoting their recherché interests and have to stick to a fairly limited repertoire of the great and popular classics. John never missed an opportunity to play what he believed in: Busoni, Messiaen and the many young composers whom he knew, or who sent him their pieces. He was himself a composer of considerable attainment, though not at all in the style of his original Manchester co-students, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, or myself.
Much that can be said about John could equally be said about anyone blessed, or handicapped (however you prefer it), by such outstanding natural talent. Though he gave pleasure to many, earned a great deal of praise and money, I am not sure what he himself got out of it. I remember meeting him late at night, while he was on one of his many across-America concert tours, in a paperback bookshop in New York. Books, especially those of Herman Melville and films gave him more pleasure, I suppose, than grand after-concert parties.
But he could touch the piano like a lover. He had an essentially improvisatory approach to the keyboard and could both hit it very hard and obtain the most ravishing and sensual sonorities from it. After a magnificent performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards at Cheltenham, he came off the platform and said “That piano won’t forget me in a hurry”. Nor will we.