> Sergei RACHMANINOV by John Ogdon [IL]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1941)
Preludes Opp. 23 and 32 (1903)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor (1910)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor (1912)
Nocturnes Nos. 1-3 (1890s)
Etudes-Tableaux Opp. 33 and 39 (1920)
Variations on a theme of Corelli (1922)
John Ogdon (piano)
Recorded in 1988 and previously unpublished
EMI CLASSICS 5 67938 2 [3CDs: 214:25]


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Immediately one’s curiosity, if not suspicion, is aroused when one reads that these performances, recorded in 1988, were previously unpublished. One has to ask why? Apparently they are derived from unissued recordings made for the now defunct Collins Classics shortly before Ogdon’s untimely death (and after his breakdown). They are now released by EMI under license from Richard Ogdon who owns their copyright. He commented that they had been sponsored by a company that had gone into liquidation. Consequently they languished unreleased until Mr Ogdon acquired their copyright. He lived abroad and was preoccupied with family concerns during the 1990s and so their release was delayed some fourteen years. Yet, playing devil’s advocate, one might be forgiven for wondering why Collins Classics did not recognise these performances by a renowned exponent of one of the most popular of classical composers and move energetically to release these recordings themselves? It is a pity that EMI did not include a note of explanation in the booklet – an omission that does no favours for them or the reputation of John Ogdon.

CD1 is devoted to the Opp 23 and 32 Preludes (10 in the former and 13 in the latter). Omitted is the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, one might say infamous judging by the number of times Rachmaninov had to play it as an encore. Probably the best known after that is the Op 23, G minor (Alla marcia) prelude. Here it begins imperiously well and there is incandescence but the gorgeous romantic tune does not tug at this reviewer’s heart as it did in earlier Ogdon recordings. There is a wanting too of finesse and poetry in the lovely Andante D major prelude that follows. Of the Op. 32 preludes the turbulent No. 6 in F minor lacks focus. Yet there are pleasures. The substantial B minor (Lento) is rapt and softly pensive in the outer softer passages but the forte more passionate middle section is a trifle uncomfortable. The galloping rhythms of the sunny G sharp minor delight, and the playful B major (allegretto) and the mysteriousness of the concluding D flat (Grave) preludes come off well.

CD2 comprises the two sonatas and Three Nocturnes. Both sonatas are written on the grand scale, their virtuoso bombast balanced by Rachmaninov’s lovely intimate romantic melodies. Rachmaninov completed his Sonata No. 1 in D minor in 1907 shortly after the Second Symphony. Like that work it is conceived on a large scale with the outer of the three movements, some 12 and 15 minutes duration. Ogdon’s robust reading has many fine moments, especially in the quieter stretches, but sometimes the denser passages are not so clearly delivered as in his prime. The later Second Sonata composed between the Third and Fourth Piano Concertos is more assured and fluent. Ogdon beautifully realises the deep-set melancholy and resignation (and defiance) inherent in the lovely central movement. Of the Nocturnes, the spiky, restless F sharp minor is driven hard, while the central F major and the dream-like F sharp minor beguile.

The Etudes-Tableaux fare well. The Op. 33 set has tender, soulful readings of No. 1, F minor and the lovely No. 8, G minor and a gruff but also more insightful No. 3 in C minor. The old virtuosity and clarity, power and finesse illuminates No. 5, D minor and No. 6 the E flat minor, while one might imagine, like Respighi who orchestrated No. 7, the E flat Etude, as a bustling fair scene. Respighi also orchestrated four of the Op. 39 Etudes to make up his Cinq Ètudes-Tableaux. Op. 39, No. 2, heavily influenced by the Dies Irae, is given a most beautifully evocative reading here (in his interpretation, Respighi imagined the sea and seagulls). The turbulent 6th, A minor with its scurrying galloping rhythms suggested ‘Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf’, and the dour No. 7 in C minor a VIP funeral. Indeed you might imagine from Ogdon’s forceful, trenchant playing the funeral scene in piercing rain with tolling bells. Finally Respighi saw No. 9 in D as an oriental march. Ogdon presses it forward strongly. Elsewhere the fiery No. 5, the E flat (Appassionato) is fervent although maybe not as forceful as in his earlier recordings.

The 3 CD set is rounded off with a very satisfying, lucid reading of the Variations on a Theme of Corelli Here Ogdon delights with delicacy and humour of phrasing in the early variations, the bizarre musings of the Adagio misterioso variation viii, and the grotesqueries of the Agitato xiii. His intermezzo (A tempo rubato) glistens, and the Andante (come prima), xiv and L’istesso tempo xv, are flowing and beautifully grave while the Meno mosso xvii and Coda haunt.

There are many delights in this curiously delayed set including strong readings of the sonatas and evocative Etudes-Tableaux; but sometimes denser material lacks clarity and passion occasionally appears to be more a matter of dynamics rather than fervour of the heart. Nevertheless, for John Ogdon’s many enthusiasts, this is a set worth acquiring -- but they are advised not to dispose of their treasured Rachmaninov recordings from the earlier, golden years of this gentle giant’s career.

Ian Lace

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