OBITUARY, BY PETER DICKENSON
GAZETTE, THE INDEPENDENT, 3rd August 1989
JOHN OGDON was a unique personality among British pianists, much admired for his unpretentious mastery and his generous promotion of unfamiliar composers he believed in.
Typical of his acumen was the way that he once took on the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, deputising at one day’s notice. When he was told, before the concert, what a remarkable feat this was when he did not even know the work, he brushed it aside, saying he had all morning to practise. This indicates that he was never merely a performer but an unusual musical intelligence, best described as a pianist-composer — stemming from the nineteenth century tradition of Chopin and Liszt, continued by Busoni and Rachmaninov. Ogdon’s own music has received little attention but the insight of a composer affected his sympathies and informed his interpretations.
He was born at Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire in 1937, and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music from 1945, first with Iso Elinson and later with pianists including Denis Matthews, Gordon Green, Egon Petri and Ilona Kabos. His work in competition was with Richard Hall, who was widely influential through his Manchester School pupils — Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and others. He also studied with Thomas Pitfield and, in the later 1960s, with George Lloyd. Ogdon joined the Manchester New Music Group and played the music of his older colleagues as well as contemporaries such as John McCabe.
In 1958 Ogdon made his London debut playing the Busoni Piano Concerto at the Proms. Busoni’s eccentric mind and lavish writing for his instrument made him a kindred spirit. William Mann, the critic, recorded his impression as “a mastery that astounded the audience” and found Ogdon’s recital debut the following year “scarcely less exciting, so complete was his technical command, so refreshing and true his interpretative imagination”. More was to come. In 1961 Ogdon won the Liszt Prize in Budapest and came to worldwide attention the following year when he shared the first prize in the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition with Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Public interest was such that Ogdon’s Tchaikovsky Hall recital, which opened his tour of the Soviet Union, was sold out and crowds were turned away. From then onwards, until his illness (which is fully documented in the book, Virtuoso, and on film), Ogdon could not escape the demands of the international concert platform, and the relentless pace it imposed on his life. It was perhaps remarkable that, with his background of psychological instability, he survived such stress as long as he did, playing and recording the standard repertoire as well as modern works well into the mid-1970s.
Fortunately, all aspects of his musical personality are preserved on record, including his two-piano partnership with his wife, Brenda Lucas. His legacy includes romantic concertos by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, modern ones by Bartók, Shostakovich, Tippett and Cyril Scott, and many solo recitals.
I remember once going to record for the BBC in the early 1970s, and finding the producer still in a state of shock, John Ogdon having just recorded several sonatas by Scriabin. It had not been the usual studio recording with pauses to plan the editing: Ogdon had played the whole lot straight through with no need for any corrections. His commercial recordings of these works for the 1972 centenary reveal him as an ideal Scriabin interpreter. Another memorable release was Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus by Messiaen, where Ogdon commanded the full range of the music’s technical and intellectual virtuosity as well as its breathtaking pianissimo. On the concert platform, where many might be forgiven for wondering how his apparently stubby fingers could cope, his Liszt in the early years was unforgettable.
In 1970 the Composers Guild of Great Britain made Ogdon Instrumentalist of the Year for his outstanding contribution to British music. From 1967 to 1969 he was co-director of the Cardiff Festival, along with Alun Hoddinott, whose music he often championed, and it was in Cardiff, in 1968, that Ogdon gave the first performance of his own Piano Concerto. Kenneth Loveland, writing about it in The Cardiff Festival of Music: 20 years (1986), felt the concerto’s complexity might militate against its survival, but found it to be “one more argument for the composer-pianist, the pianist who sees more deeply into the music of composers because he is one himself”. This instinct made Ogdon exploratory — not towards the avant-garde but, perhaps more courageously, within traditional means. It led him to perform Ronald Stevenson and, with mental illness almost defeating him, to premiere Gerard Schurmann’s Piano Concerto in 1974.
At a Queen Elizabeth Hall concert I attended in 1973, Ogdon played works by Tippett, Rawsthorne, Maxwell Davies and gave premières of works by Schurmann and Panufnik. There were about 40 people in the audience: to endanger his reputation by selecting a programme which would attract such a small audience was a typically generous gesture. Every piece in the programme was played with a conviction that is also a feature of his odd assortment of composers and works included in the five-disc set, John Ogdon Plays Pianissic Philosophies (issued on EMI in 1975).
Ogdon was articulate in words, too. He wrote a chapter on “The Romantic Tradition’ for the Penguin book on Keyboard Music and another for a symposium on Liszt.
When he returned to the concert platform after his illness I invited him to perform at Keele University. There was some apprehension about how he would play and he was certainly not himself socially. But this changed when he went to the piano and he came close to his old form, later improving still further.
It is characteristic that what must have been one of Ogdon’s last recordings was a tribute to a neglected British composer, as well as an astonishing personal triumph over protracted illness. Kaikhosru Sorabji (who died last year at the age of 96), had given the first pcrformance of his three-and-a-half-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum in 1930, but later banned his own music since nobody seemed capable of playing it. This intractable monster of the piano repertoire was waiting in the wings for Ogdon, who played it live last year and recorded it; the CD has become a bestseller.
Richard Morrison, writing in The Times, encapsulated many aspects of Ogdon’s indomitable genius. “Ogdon was simply astonishing. Extract any 10-minute segment from Opus Clavicembalisticum and you would find enough technical improbabilities to dissuade any average virtuoso from performance. Ogdon conquered them, one after another, with magnificent resource and sheer guts.”