Busoni: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with Chorus of Men’s Voices



How glorious! How sad!

John Ogdon’s career made a large difference in what we hear, and how.  If Raymond Lewenthal was the first in our time to summon Alkan, for instance, from the shadows, he nevertheless remained a tantalizing curiosity until Ogdon’s recording of the enormous and demanding Concerto for Solo Piano (long deleted RCA Red Seal LSC-3192), with its irresistible élan and manic magnificence, revealed both composer and pianist at their greatest.  His way with the “Hammerklavier” (deleted RCA Red Seal LSC-3213) had a genial ease which made other accounts seem merely earnest, while his blaze of clangtint—beside which Horowitz’s flashiness is mere neon—fired the Rachmaninov sonatas (deleted RCA Red Seal LSC-3024) to an hypnotic glow.  A composer of distinction—the brilliant grotesqueries of his piano concerto (deleted EMI Angel S-36805) provide an appealing demonstration of kinship with Alkan and Busoni—he was a musicians’ musician whose response to Nielsen’s knotted exuberance (deleted RCA Red Seal LSC-3002), say, or Busoni’s eldritch humor, or to Liszt—from the early swashbuckling fantasy to the oracular late style—was always grandly authoritative and presciently compelling (deleted Seraphim 60088).  A predilection for epic scale and superhuman challenges was characteristic, and the young Ogdon never took them in less than titanic stride—one thinks of Ronald Stevenson’s great Passacaglia on DSCH (deleted HMV ASD 2321/22), the works of Sorabji, and the present album.  The just issued Opus Clavicembalisticum (Altarus AIR-CD-9075), however, recorded in 1988, is testimony to how greatly changed, ravaged, Ogdon was upon his emergence from a long period of mental illness—the power remained, but the fluency and complete assurance had dwindled to a crabbed and attenuated grasp often seemingly spurred by desperation.  Wildly variable in achievement, these late recordings (among which one may mention Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica.  Continuum CCD 1006, Fanfare 13:1) are nevertheless valuable—Ogdon does often ringingly hit the mark, and when he fails one sometimes finds, too, how the misses of the great can be more revealing than the successes of pygmies.  He did not go gentle into the night.  Still, it is the young Ogdon we most often recall, in awe colored with affection and gratitude, and this 1967 recording of Busoni’s piano concerto catches him at the zenith of his career and in the blush of one of his most resplendent triumphs.  Both Ogden and Daniell Revenaugh, by the way, were students of the great Egon Petri, who deemed himself Busoni’s “disciple.” The recent Ohlsson/Dohnányi recording (Telarc CD-80207, Fanfare 13:4) rivals this in a more sumptuously relaxed account—providing the ultimate luxury for one of Busoni’s more ambitious works, namely, the simultaneous availability of two grandly viable readings—though this crisper, muscularly brisker, and more dramatically charged performance remains preeminent.  An insert carries program notes by Busoni and Petri.  Edged in minimal tape hiss, sound is spacious and detailed.  Recommendation is superfluous.  Good night, John—we miss you.