S&H Concert Review

A Portrait of John Ogdon: Works by Ogdon, Liszt, Maxwell Davies, Scriabin and Busoni. Ian Pace (piano). Wigmore Hall, Friday February 9th, 2001 (CC).

This was a fitting tribute to the great British pianist John Ogdon (1937-89). Ogdon's work as a concert pianist is by now the stuff of legend. Marathon performances (witness his account of Sorabji's Opus claviercembalisticum on the South Bank, for example), a phenomenal technique and a passionate commitment to music of our time all point to his greatness. Much less well known is his work as a composer: his output includes four operas, two piano concertos and (unsurprisingly) a large amount of music for solo piano.

It seemed remarkably apt that Friday's concert should be given by the phenomenally gifted Ian Pace, whose recent performance of Michael Finnissy's enormous The History of Photography in Sound is surely something Ogdon would have applauded. In a long and taxing first half (taxing almost as much for the audience as for Pace), three pieces by Ogdon were interspersed with Liszt's Third Mephisto Waltz and Maxwell Davies' Five Pieces, Op. 2. A brief introduction by Ogdon's son provided a fitting reminder of the concert's purpose, before Pace played Ogdon's Ballade of 1969.

Drawing on the Romantic tradition of the Ballade, the piece used big Romantic gestures and Lisztian tremolandi to heighten its effect. It did threaten to become diffuse at several points, but nevertheless made a powerful impression. Liszt's Third Mephisto Waltz seemed an appropriately dark response, pointing towards Scriabin in its ethos. Pace has a large sound, and his interpretation threatened almost to be too much for the Wigmore to take.

Ogdon's First Sonata (1961, revised in 1971 and dedicated to Stephen Bishop) is an obsessive, quirky piece. It seemed almost to take the Mephisto Waltz and refract it through a very individual prism. Ogdon's range of reference is vast, from Gershwin and Rachmaninov to the outer limits of the avant-garde. The music's dark colouring scarcely lets up, however, and this makes for hard, but nevertheless rewarding listening.

Peter Maxwell Davies was, along with Ogdon, Birtwistle and Goehr, a member of the Manchester New Music Group. The Five Pieces of 1955/6 show the influence of Webern and Boulez in the use of fragments, extreme intervallic displacements and a dramatic use of silence. If it rather outstays its welcome, it acted as a fitting acknowledgement of one of Ogdon's contemporaries. Ogdon's own Theme and Variations (1966), which ended the first half, was full of vast contrasts and quirky gestures, characterfully realised by Pace.

The whispered intimacies and trill-dominated textures of Scriabin's Tenth Sonata (1913) provided an intoxicating beginning to the (briefer) second part to the concert. Pace, surprisingly, seemed hardly ecstatically transported by this music, instead seeming happier in two of Busoni's Elegies. Ogdon's recording of the Busoni Piano Concerto is justly celebrated, and the music of this composer was surely close to his heart. The idea of the Romantic pianist-composer must have appealed to Ogdon, and Pace in particular brought out the virtuoso treatment of Greensleeves in Elegy No. 4, 'Turandot's Frauengemach'.

Of course, Ogdon himself dominated the closing stages of the evening. Two out of the Sonatas that make up the late Kleidoscope showed Ogdon's skills in the art of the paraphrase. The Sixth Sonata, 'Reminiscences of Scriabin', was imbued with exotic warmth, while the Eleventh, 'Sonata super Boris' was a virtuoso presentation of themes from that opera. Ogdon's free transcription of Varlaam's Song looked set to be a programmed encore, but Pace still had stamina enough to close the evening with the last movement of Tippett's First Piano Sonata.

This concert provided another example of Pace's commitment to deserving musical causes. Furthermore, it was a poignant reminder of the genius of John Ogdon.

Colin Clarke

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