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.
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