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John Ogdon (1913-1998) – Seventieth Anniversary Edition
CD 1
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18 [35:27]
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op.43 (previously unreleased) [24:04]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard
rec. 29-31 January 1962 and 21 December 1963
Gabriel FAURÉ (1945-1924)
Ballade in F sharp Op.19 [13:14)
Henry LITOLFF (1818-1891)
Scherzo (Concerto symphonique No. 4 in D minor Op.102) [6:47]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Louis Frémaux
rec. 17-18 June 1971
CD 2
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op.23 [33:33]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphonic Variations [16:17]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 17-18 December 1962
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Fantasia, S123 [15:20]
Franz LISZT arr Ferruccio BUSONI (1966-1924)
Rhapsodie espagnole S254 [14:41]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard
rec. 22 December 1963
CD3
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 1 Sz83 (previously unreleased) [21:45]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. 14, 18 October 1965
Alexander Konstantinovich GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F minor Op.92 [26:44]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Berglund
rec. 8-9 January 1976
John OGDON (1937-1989)
Piano Concerto No. 1 [26:54]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Lawrence Foster
rec. 22-22 December 1970
CD4
John OGDON

Piano Sonata [23:58]
rec. 21 July 1972
Theme and Variations [7:43]
rec. 24 August 1966
Franz LISZT
Piano Sonata in B minor S178 [31:09]
rec. 24 April 1964
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 in A minor S244 [5:25]
Valse oubliée No.1 S215 No.1 [2:30]
rec. 25-26 July 1967
Csárdás macabre S224 [6:30]
En ręve: Nocturne S207 [2:35]
rec. 10 August 1965
John Ogdon (piano)
EMI CLASSICS 3927472 [4 CDs: 79:34 + 79:52 + 75:24 + 79:53]


John Ogdon – pianist, composer, writer- was one of the UK’s most prodigiously talented musicians until illness cut short his career in the early 1970s. A contemporary of figures such as Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle in Manchester in the 1950s, his pianistic talent manifested itself at an early age. He studied with figures such as Iso Elinson and Egon Petri and made his London debut aged 21 playing Busoni’s Piano Concerto which he championed and later recorded. His success at the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow – he shared first prize with Vladimir Ashkenazy – launched an international career. 

Ogdon’s ability to commit the most complicated scores to memory, plus his unrivalled technical command, enabled him to incorporate an enormous range of music into his repertoire. In addition to what might be thought of as “standard” fare he was also a pioneering performer of works by Tippett, Alkan, Ronald Stevenson, Sorabji and Busoni. As a composer himself, Ogdon possessed a striking ability to combine a rigorously intellectual approach to such complex works as Stevenson’s Passacaglia and Fugue on DSCH or Opus Clavicembalisticum by Sorabji with a capacity to project the overall structure of the music effectively to listeners.

The onset of illness effectively ended his career in the mid-1970s, and Ogdon was hospitalised for some years. An attempted comeback with the support of his wife Brenda Lucas in the 1980s was at best partially successful and he did not regain the flair that characterised his earlier performances, although he continued to make recordings. He died in 1989 at the age of 52.

The four CDs in this set contain a mixture of “popular” and more unfamiliar repertoire, and the performances are never less than involving. Two of the items, the Paganini Rhapsody and Bartók’s First Concerto, have never been published before and some tracks are only now making their first appearance on CD.

Rachmaninov was one of Ogdon’s great enthusiasms and he recorded the Second Concerto under John Pritchard before his Moscow success. The recording sounds well and Ogdon is fully equal to the work’s technical demands although there is something rather stolid about the performance overall – Ashkenazy’s roughly contemporary account on Decca with Kondrashin creates a greater sense of excitement. In the Adagio sostenuto some beautiful orchestral playing from the Philharmonia is occasionally offset by some over-emphasis on Ogdon’s part in some passages which detract from the poetry of the movement. The Finale goes well enough and the grand restatement of the tune at the end is as barnstorming as one could wish.

The Paganini Rhapsody recording has been unpublished until now due to faulty recording balances which have now been improved. Overall this is a memorable performance which takes wing in a way that the rather studio-bound Second Concerto does not. Here Ogdon and Pritchard capture the mercurial nature of Rachmaninov’s variations very successfully with a particularly effective use of dynamic contrasts which one doesn’t always hear in this work. The famous 18th variation for example is launched with great simplicity and builds to an impassioned climax. The final variations are powerful and exciting. It’s a pleasure to welcome this fine performance from the archives.

The two concertante works by Fauré and Litolff - originally coupled with Carnival of the Animals in which John Ogdon was partnered by his wife Brenda Lucas - are dispatched with suitable panache and Frémaux provides sterling support.

The Tchaikovsky First Concerto and Franck Symphonic Variations display Ogdon’s ability to combine virtuosity with delicacy in performance, and Barbirolli and the Philharmonia provide passionate orchestral support. Here and there Ogdon lingers in some passages rather more than necessary, temporarily slowing down the progress of the music.

Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia and Rhapsodie espagnole - the latter in an orchestration by Busoni - are more unusual fare and were recorded at the same time as the Paganini Rhapsody. These are performed with the degree of panache we might expect. 

The hitherto unpublished Bartók First Concerto under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent was recorded at the same sessions as the Third Concerto which was later released on ASD 2347 coupled with the Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Some unrealistically close timpani and woodwind balances may be the reason for this recording being withheld. Ogdon and Sargent are generally successful in projecting the impetus of the concerto although occasionally there is some rhythmic slackness in slower passages. Bartók was not exactly an unknown quantity to Sargent - or Ogdon - but perhaps the performance would have been tighter if, say, Dorati had been available for the sessions. He recorded fine versions of Bartók’s string concertos with Menuhin and the New Philharmonia around the same time.

Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 dates from January 1976 sessions with Paavo Berglund. The concerto was written in 1911 for Leopold Godowsky and is a sumptuous late romantic work recalling Rachmaninov. Ogdon sometimes seems a bit heavy-handed here and there, although the virtuoso passages are effective enough and Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra lend suitably full-blooded support.

John Ogdon’s own Piano Concerto was recorded in London in December 1970 under the American conductor Lawrence Foster. When this came out on LP it was paired with Shostakovich’s Second Concerto. Despite the composer’s undoubted virtuosity, in all honesty this and Ogdon’s solo Sonata and variations included in the set are not very memorable, with their strong echoes of Bartók and Prokofiev.

The Liszt Sonata performance was described by the Stereo Record Guide as having “the combination of intellectual grasp and emotional power together with the live quality that distinguishes a memorable concert performance.” What is also impressive after the drama of much of the Sonata is the delicacy of the final section in Ogdon’s performance.

The 1966 Stereo Record Guide felt that Ogdon, in the early stages of his career at least, was occasionally “intimidated” by his conductors in the recording studio and this had an inhibiting effect on the expressiveness of his concerto recordings. In his solo discs he was able to let his imagination run free. Sometimes in the works with orchestra the tension sags in performances, particularly in solo passages where Ogdon attempts to apply a degree of rubato to the performance. This is less obvious in the Liszt concertante pieces where the music itself demands a degree of flexibility, but in the concertos by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Bartok the overall drive and impetus of the performances can be adversely affected. This is balanced by the pianist’s undoubted virtuosity and command throughout. 

Despite these reservations, this is a treasure trove for Ogdon’s fans and also well worth acquiring if you are not yet familiar with the legacy of this wayward genius.

Ewan McCormick

 

 


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