RHAPSODY IN LIEU, BY BRIAN MASTERS
THE TIMES, September 8th 2003
As a campaign is launched to revive John Ogdon's memory, our correspondent remembers the great pianist
THERE CANNOT BE many concert pianists who have made front page news, Beckham-style, for winning a competition. When John Ogdon won the Tchaikovsky Prize in Moscow (jointly with Vladimir Ashkenazy) in 1962, all the daily newspapers went wild with excitement, for it was not thought that Englishness was a quality conducive to passionate musical fireworks.
Literally from one day to the next, this shy, diffident, quiet-mannered young man from Lancashire passed from being totally unknown to a global sensation, photographed and followed wherever he went. His concerts were sell-outs, his reception a stampede of stomping and bursting energy. He made audiences catch fire.
Ogdon died quite unnecessarily and prematurely in 1989 at the age of 52.
Meanwhile, a debilitating schizophrenic illness had intervened to tame his talent. Now, there are some salespeople in record shops who shuffle shamefully when trying to remember his name.
Looking back, it was possible to discern in John Ogdon’s playing some hint of the danger of surrender. For he was a different man in private, like a big grizzly bear with the menace of a mouse, speaking only when spoken to, smiling and nodding, and smoking an endless line of cigarettes as if untainted air was poisonous. He barely inhaled, preferring to toy with the cigarette as a device to ward off the intrusion of conversation. He was fiercely intelligent and erudite, but his best colloquy was with himself or with his piano. Despite his being the most compliant man imaginable, the obligation to make conversation was one demand too many.
The piano was the expression of his otherwise silent soul and its music was his bloodstream. Without it he was in peril. One had only to watch John play, his great shoulders hunched in an embrace of the air which hovered over the piano, deft fingers glancing across the keyboard like quicksilver, releasing the instrument’s voice, cherishing and caressing it, to know the man was possessed. He was in the grip of some power which had lain dormant through the quotidian banalities of life and which burst forth with such energy as was frightening (and thrilling) to behold. He could be given music lasting a couple of hours, which he had never seen before, and would play it straight off, immediately, without rehearsal. Nobody had ever seen that before. It was an unearthly ability, aberrant, alien. It could not be merely the product of training; this was a man whose life was hidden from the rest of us, whose connections with music were transcendental, overwhelming, and in the proper literal sense, unreal. His bond with the piano was essential, in that the essence of John Ogdon was the pianist — the man himself was but a shambling shell.
I knew John and his wife Brenda well and we visited one another regularly. One evening at dinner in my house in Hammersmith, with Barbara Leigh-Hunt the other guest, John was more fidgety than usual, apparently distracted. When Brenda came with me to the kitchen to help wash up, he was clearly agitated and anxious to go home. Later that evening he attacked his wife and started to hurl ornaments. I found him the next morning with a cross cut on his forehead and in his temples, clearly self-inflicted and already forgotten.
Brenda and I then spent three chilling days touring hospitals, bouncing from one discouraging doctor to another, trying desperately to avoid the awful decisions they were imposing upon Brenda, namely to save her husband by assenting to electrical treatment which might not also save the pianist.
John had long lived in fear that schizophrenia would overtake him for his father had suffered from the disease, and had become an authority on it as well. John suspected it would be hereditary. Eventually he was treated in Roehampton, where I had some bizarre and Kafkaesque conversations with him. He was cured, and continued to play in public, but with a touch of unpredictability which was less inspiring than worrying; one felt nervous for him. In private he never lost his serenity of disposition. John’s death was due to sudden pneumonia, but his legacy was intact. England had produced no finer pianist in its history.
The John Ogdon Foundation is devoted to not only the re-issue of his best recordings, which really are demonic in their intensity, but to the publication and performance of more than 200 compositions, from sonatas and preludes to an opera, the manuscripts of which are in Brenda’s care. It offers scholarships to promising young artists, the first of which went to Naomi Iwase who now frequently plays John’s music in public. And we have started an annual John Ogdon Dinner, the first of them held last week at the Garrick Club and attended by assorted luminaries of the music world as well as friends and family.
More young people should know who he was and tremble at the sound of his playing. After all, in their day members of their parents’ generation used to queue overnight at the Royal Albert Hall to watch the gentle giant pass.
A MUSICAL LIFE LESS ORDINARY
- 1937 John Andrew Howard Ogdon is born in Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire
- 1945 Ogdon attends Royal Manchester College where his teachers include Egon Petri and Ilona Kabos
- 1958 Makes his London debut, performing Busoni Piano Concerto at the Proms
- 1959 Ogdon performs his first recital at Wigmore Hall in London
- 1961 Awarded the Liszt Prize in Budapest
- 1962 Wins joint first prize, with Ashkenazy, at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow
- 1974 Ogdon finally succumbs to inherited schizophrenia
- 1982 After a partial recovery Ogdon performs Rhapsody in Blue in London
- 1989 dies, aged 52, from pneumonia