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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827):
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor"* [36’35"]
32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, Wo080 [11’33"]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828):

Piano Sonata in C minor, D958 [29’25"]
John Ogdon (piano)
*BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
Recorded: BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London, 23 January, 1972; *Festhalle Viersen, Germany, 21 January, 1969
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4142-2 [77’55"]


A great deal of John Ogdon’s commercial discography was given over to big Romantic and early twentieth-century music. By comparison the music of composers of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries are fairly lightly represented so it’s good that BBC Legends have chosen works by Beethoven and Schubert for this release. Ogdon (1937-1989) was one of the great virtuoso pianists and the tragic interruption to his career caused by illness and then his premature death meant that, despite his many achievements, his promise was surely not completely fulfilled.

The present performance of the "Emperor" finds him in fine form and ably supported by Jascha Horenstein. The opening flourishes and tutti are strongly projected. I wondered for a second if they were too strongly projected but it soon became clear that this is of a piece with the approach to the work favoured here by both conductor and soloists. I must say, though, that in a closely balanced recording some of the timpanist’s contributions are slightly too much of a good thing. Throughout the work the orchestral contribution is not always infallible but there is no lack of commitment.

In general the first movement is muscular and forthright. That is not a euphemism for "crude", by the way. Ogdon clearly conceives the music on an heroic scale. Inevitably there are a few minor bits of untidiness, such as one almost inevitably encounters in live performances. For me, the conviction of the playing more than carries the day. Ogdon is thoughtful and poetic in the slow movement and he receives sensitive support from Horenstein and his players. There’s vigour, verve and not a little bounce in the finale. Both pianist and orchestra play with strong rhythmic drive, greatly to the benefit of the music.

All in all this is a fine, spirited performance, which I much enjoyed.

Incidentally, some readers may have seen a review of this recording in the June edition of Gramophone magazine by the highly respected critic, Jeremy Nicholas. I was intrigued that he reported what he said he could only describe as a "quiet mechanical whine" in the background throughout the concerto. I listened very carefully for this defect both through loudspeakers and headphones and I could not detect it so perhaps there was a pressing fault on some early copies. However, prospective purchasers might wish to sample for themselves first, in which case if there’s a fault it ought to show up in the slow movement, I think. What I did detect while listening for the background noise through headphones was a good number of very audible creaks during the slow movement. I can only assume these are noises made as John Ogdon shifts his balance on the piano stool. This emphasises that the recording is pretty closely miked but not so much, I think, as to really disturb the listener. There is also audible evidence of the audience but, again, this didn’t distract me too much.

The remainder of the disc comes from a studio recital given almost exactly three years later. Beethoven’s compressed, inventive set of variations receives a fine, enjoyable performance. I especially liked the more delicate passages where one senses pianistic power being held in reserve and, indeed, a degree of playfulness. The variations, and indeed the Schubert sonata benefit from a better recording than is the case in the concerto – there’s more space round the sound. I enjoyed Ogdon’s reading of these variations very much.

The Schubert sonata is, perhaps, marginally less successful. The powerful elements of the first movement come off well. However, I did wonder if at certain points in the movement, where Schubert relaxes, whether Ogdon relaxes to quite the same degree? The slow movement, not quite one of Schubert’s most interesting ones, sounds just a bit plain here. The music of the scampering finale is almost insouciant at times. The movement may be a little long for its material, especially when all repeats are given, but I think Ogdon does it pretty well. The music bowls along pretty irresistibly under his fingers.

Despite minor reservations about the Schubert – which not everyone will share – this is a most welcome disc. It is a fine souvenir of a much-missed artist and a valuable extension to his discography. There’s a good note about John Ogden by Jeremy Siepmann, though I wish it had been set in type that is easier to read. I’m happy to recommend this CD.

John Quinn



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