A GENTLE GIANT, BY CHARLES HOPKINS
JOHN OGDON REMEMBERED, GRAMOPHONE, Spring 1998
John Ogdon was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable pianists to emerge in the post-war period. His phenomenal ability to perform and interpret even the most complex works at first sight alone places him amongst an elite in the history of pianism. And yet this astonishing talent was the gift of a disarmingly shy and modest man. Charles Hopkins recalls his own unforgettable encounters ...
THERE WAS A decision to be taken: on the one hand Raymond Lewenthal was due to make a rare London appearance with the Liszt E flat Concerto and Totentanz at the Royal Albert Hall, while at the Royal Festival Hall John Ogdon was advertised as soloist in the Rachmaninov Third. By now readers will have inferred for which side of the river I eventually made!
I had first heard John in a characteristically absorbing recital of works by Bach, Schumann, Busoni, Goehr and Liszt in the same hail not long after his Moscow triumph, and had made a point of not missing any opportunity of acquainting myself further with his playing. Accordingly, over the next few years, I attended many memorable performances of Busoni, most notably the Concerto (with Pritchard) and the Indian Fantasy (with Horenstein) as well as a BBC Maida Vale programme during the Busoni centenary year (1966) in which, in addition to the Concerto and Fantasy, he also played the Konzertstück — Rachmaninov (both the sonatas after a first half of Opp. 110 and Ill), Liszt (the 12 Transcendental Etude along with the Mussorgsky Pictures, and Messiaen (Turangalila and Vingt Regards) among many others.
However, it was not until this particular evening that I had summoned up enough late-teenage chutzpah to make his acquaintance on a personal level. Having awaited for the artists’ room scrum (as part of which I had managed to insinuate myself, largely unnoticed, into his presence) to clear, I made my move. My opening gambit was, I judged, safe, if unimaginative. “Wonderful performance”, I said. “Thank you very much”, came the reply in a surprisingly gentle and unassuming voice. “That’s very kind of you.” Well, at least I hadn’t been thrown out! Encouraged by the unexpectedly cordial reception, my confidence grew by the minute as I proceeded to enlarge in laborious detail on exactly what it was about the performance that I had found so impressive. To my surprise, unlike the give-away glazed expression assumed by many an artist under these circumstances, his response appeared genuinely interested in what I had to say. Now, I thought, for my coup de grace. “By coincidence. Mr Ogdon, I shall be playing the Rachmaninov myself in a few weeks and was wondering if you could spare the time ...” Unfortunately, as it turned out, he was leaving directly on an extended tour, but said that on his return he would be delighted to listen to me and help in whatever way he could. Elated, I resolved not to let the opportunity slip and so, after an exchange of correspondence, several weeks later an appointment was arranged.
The Ogdon art
On arriving at the Ogdons’ palatial Regent’s Park residence I was shown in by a member of staff and immediately caught sight of John’s not inconsiderable frame at the top of the stairs, beckoning me to join, him in the music room on the first floor. Two Steinway pianos occupied one half of the elegantly furnished L-shaped room. The over-confident garrulousness of our first meeting had now deserted me and I was becoming increasingly nervous as mementos of his successes in Moscow and elsewhere reminded me that I was about to play for one of the foremost concert artists of the day.
Having announced that I had brought the Brahms Second, he offered to play the orchestral part on the second piano. After negotiating the opening piano solo without incident I felt more at ease, only to be set back on my heels by John’s astonishing rendering of the subsequent tutti section. replete with a wealth of orchestral detail nowhere to be found in the piano reduction. Moreover, the different instrumental colours he was able to draw from the piano, notwithstanding a broken string, were quite unlike anything I had been able to assimilate, even from listening to him in concert and on record. Equally, the dynamic control he so effortlessly displayed, combining power and delicacy at will, opened my eyes (and ears) immediately to a range of possibilities I had never previously imagined. Realizing now that I was just starting rather than completing my quest for the pianistic insights of the great artist, I actually began to enjoy the play-through, although I was hardly aware of my own contribution, so eager was I to hear what John was doing.
After we finished (together, to my relief) coffee appeared and we sat and discussed a wide range of issues, many of which proved of common interest, Busoni, Petri, Alkan and so on. He also mentioned in passing the music of Sorabji, suggesting that I might find it interesting, a comment that was to have a profound influence on the future course of my career. As our conversation continued he became more forthcoming (he even smoked less), his initial polite reserve giving way to an engaging good humour.
When we returned to the piano there were to be more revelations. My ascetic attitude to the printed score up to that point had precluded the idea of altering any single aspect of the notation as laid out on the page, except, that is, for an official ossia, with the result that I frequently found myself straining and still falling short of the required effect. The singular ease with which John appeared able to achieve the impossible was now revealed to me to emanate in part from an astonishingly inventive approach to fingering, often involving extraordinary redistributions of the material, by means of which a previously impenetrable passage would emerge with unexampled speed and clarity. Thus liberated from the restraints of my self-imposed strait-jacket, previously intractable problems proved soluble under John’s guidance, and passages which I had approached with some trepidation, such as the mixed double-note figuration after the octaves in the second movement, now appeared more manageable. In addition, although he expended a great deal of energy as he played, paradoxically his movements at the piano were astonishingly economical, his hands appearing hardly to move except laterally, in marked contrast to my counter-productive wrist-flapping and arm-flailing.
Much has been made of the principle of applying relaxed weight in piano playing, often mistakenly and with adverse effects, not least in terms of velocity. However, to watch at close quarters John’s uncanny capacity for combining a floating arm with fingerwork of phenomenal rapidity was in itself an education — when I later played Ravel’s Gaspard for him he demonstrated a particular effect with the rapid repeated notes at the beginning of Scarbo by using the fourth finger of the left hand alone! It was not, however, John’s way to be dogmatic, and he would often suggest entirely different fingerings and interpretative nuances if I played the same piece for him more than once. Intriguingly, Petri, who had exerted a powerful influence on John, would frequently display a similar apparent inconsistency, saying to the hapless student who dared draw his attention to the anomaly, that he had progressed since they had last met, whereas the student had remained where he was!
Flights of fancy
John’s disarming and very real modesty was scarcely less of an example. Over the months that followed my first visit, I played to him whenever possible, benefiting on every occasion from his wealth of imaginative advice, usually prefaced with some disclaimer such as “I’m no expert, but ..." Yet the expertise he subsequently revealed was of a rare order, both practical and inspirational, across a huge range of repertory, from the Hammerklavier Sonata through Alkan’s Symphony to the Debussy Etudes and Prokofiev’s Second Concerto. I would leave, often after several hours (not infrequently at the expense of his own practice for forthcoming concerts), laden with scores generously loaned, such as the first versions of Rachmaninov’s First Concerto and the Liszt Transcendental Etudes.
Even in the most well-known material he would have remarkable flights of fancy, both at a technical level and on the interpretative plane. For example, on one occasion he had an idea that he wanted me to try in the opening chords of the Tchaikovsky First, maintaining that a particular quality of sound could be achieved without any loss of power by avoiding the use of the thumb, which he proceeded to demonstrate to me. Equally, his capacity for grasping a work’s essence at first sight was little short of awesome, and to witness him in action under these conditions was an unforgettable experience. During our time together it fell to me to give what was probably the first UK performance of Berio’s Sequenza IV, not yet printed and available from the publisher only in the form of a facsimile of the composer’s manuscript. As usual I asked John for his opinion. I had, of course, heard rumours of his having read the Boulez Second Sonata at sight during his student years, but to watch him unravel the complexities of Berio’s hieroglyphs so comprehensively at one attempt (especially after the time it had taken me!) was truly humbling.
Sadly, not long after, we went our separate ways, and it was only after his magisterial traversal of Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum in July 1988 that we met again. The various tribulations of the intervening years had clearly left their mark on him, yet he greeted me as though we had seen each other only the week before, even reminding me of pleasant shared recollections of which I had myself only a faint memory. The personal impression he had left upon me, however, had been indelible, just as the impact he had had on my conception of pianism. To have known him is an honour; to have shared so many of his thoughts a rare and unforgettable privilege.