John Ogdon at 50 Bryce Morrison assesses the recordings

Few pianists are as naturally and formidably gifted as John Ogclon.  Even today I can recall the impact of his Tchaikovsky and Liszt First Concertos shortly before his triumph in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition.  The playing blazed with a pianistic panache and virtuosity unknown to other British pianists and modulated into a tonal and poetic delicacy, a light and shade, of a no less remarkable freedom and spontaneity.  Here at last, one felt — not without a touch of prophecy — was a pianist who could equal and even excel the Russians at their own game.

The rest, as they say, is history, a disturbing tale of international acclaim clouded and later engulfed by private trauma and instability.  An inherited form of depression combined with a manic jet-paced schedule to tilt and shatter the always precarious balance of his musical genius.  Today, after long periods of pain and withdrawal, he is again before the public both live and on record, a rare tribute to his courage and determination and to the devotion and fortitude of those closest to him.

Naturally, it would be surprising if Ogdon’s recordings (the majority for EMI, RCA etc no longer available) failed to mirror such drama and upheaval and they range — sometimes within a single work — from the sublime to the perfunctory, from the assured to the hesitant or tentative.  Unpredictable to the last, Ogdon can, however, often make an eloquent and dazzling case for composers he sees as unjustly neglected and there are some richly satisfying compensations for those deleted recordings of Peter Mennin, Yardumian, Alkan and Nielsen, to name but a few.

Pride of place must go to Ogdon’s recent Chandos recording of music by William Alwyn.  Both the 12 Preludes and the 11 Fantasy- Waltzes are intimately connected with the memory of Richard Farrell, the brilliant New Zealand pianist who died in 1958 in a car accident, and Ogdon rises to a dual tribute, to both composer and dedicatee, with memorable affection and clarity.  His virtuosity in the Sixth Prelude, for example, (tantalisingly in both G and F sharp and suggesting a giant playfully hurling blocks of concrete in all directions) is thunderous yet controlled and he makes a perfect case for the Waltzes, where the ghosts of Liszt, Ravel and Debussy shimmer behind an elegant and mocking façade.  The recordings are of demonstration quality and so lovers of the unusual and attractive (by no means always synonymous) need look no further.

On more well known territory Ogdon’s 1962 EMI recording of Rakhmaninov’s Second Concerto still sounds well and is surely among the most delicate, most stylistically sympathetic and refined.  Here is no wildly flailing Titan but a gentle giant capable of subduing vast resources and transforming Rakhmaninov’s glitter into the purest poetry.  Rarely can the first movement’s starry ebb and flow, its glamorous sense of elegy, have been more affectingly caught.  Some may find the approach perversely restrained but others will surely rejoice in such a lightening of the composer’s customary morbidity and lugubriousness.  Sir John Pritchard proves himself the perfect partner in excellence and the sheen and richness of the Philharmonia’s strings in the central Adagio are a supreme complement to Ogdon’s rare calm and repose.  Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto on the reverse is marginally less successful, more reflective than robust, but there are again many moments of a delicate poetic fervour that quietly illuminates passages that sometimes seemed lost for ever; blunted by over-familiarity.

Then there is Busoni’s massive and forbidding Mount Everest of a concerto (five movements and a male voice choir in the Finale).  This is the only available recording and Ogdon’s reading, despite an impossibly remote balance, suggests nothing less than a Herculean labour of love (I can recall his conclusion of one performance, musically intact but sartorially adrift, complete with flying shirt studs and anchorless collar).  Beggars can’t be choosers and so one is grateful, too, for the Tippett Piano Concerto even when again presented in a balance which not only reduces Ogdon’s own contribution but also the impact of a work once described by the composer as like ‘a jewel turning in different ways.’ A new recording of this magical concerto is long overdue, particularly since its mystical and tirelessly evolving life has recently attracted the attention of several celebrated pianists.

Less happily, Ogdon’s recent CDs for Pickwick of Beethoven and Chopin are surely too vulnerable to withstand critical scrutiny and it would be both cruel and pointless to cite chapter and verse, particularly when such obvious failings are exposed in crystal-clear CD format.  Yet even here there are moments to treasure.  A bull-in-a-china-shop rampage through the Scherzo of Chopin’s Third Sonata is countered by the reflective beauty of parts of the Largo and EMI’s cassettes of ‘Piano Moods’ or ‘Favourites’ do not entirely exclude examples of Ogdon’s truest quality.  His Liszt is for the most part vague and approximate, a reflection of his legendary capacity to learn the shape or outline of a work at top speed.  Such facility is again damaging in Chopin, though the two Nocturnes from EMI’s Popular Chopin recital are fine exceptions and CFP’s selection of Op 9 No 2 in E flat for their recent reissue is entirely understandable.  The same firm’s ‘Piano Favourites with John Ogdon’ is, however, tired and confused (try comparing Ogdon’s Moszkowski E major Waltz with Eileen Joyce’s scintillating old 78, to take an extreme instance, and you’ll see what I mean).

The best advice is for John Ogdon’s innumerable admirers and well-wishers to be selective, and above all to opt for that memorably poetic Rakhmaninov concerto and, even more reassuringly, his recent William Alwyn recital.  The Lyrita Cyril Scott recordings of the Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2 and Poem for piano and orchestra, arrived too late for consideration but will doubtless appeal to those with a taste for exotica.  New recordings from Altarus are already available (a virtuoso programme including Liszt’s Dante Sonata and Balakirev’s Islamey) and many new discs including one of Busoni’s daunting Fantasia contrapuntistica, are under discussion.