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John OGDON (1937-1989)
Sonata “Dedicated to my friends Stephen Bishop” [24.53]
Ballade [10.06]
Kaleidoscope No 1 (6 Caprices) [9.17]
Variations and Fugue [16.52]
Tyler Hay (piano)
rec. 2017, Westvest Church, Schiedam, Holland

I can remember, unless I have got very confused, as a student in the first half of the 1970’s attending, alongside one of my Guildhall professors, a recital given by John Ogdon, at the Wigmore Hall. Sadly, I only recall two things from that evening, one is that he played a wildly virtuoso work of his own and secondly a comment made by my mentor “It’s possible that some people just have too much talent”. This CD indicates his point in many ways.

I will, though, begin with the negatives. Ogdon’s style is diffuse and often unfocused. There is a mad fecundity of ideas all pressing to get out before the next one emerges. To quote Tyler Hay’s excellent booklet essay “his compositions use a kaleidoscopic technique that throws around ideas in a potpourri of interesting colours and contrasts” and this he accepts, makes his technique “sporadic and difficult to define”. There were certainly times for me, say in the long 2nd movement of the Sonata and in the highly complex Variations and Fugue (1960-63), when I felt like giving upon on Ogdon in frustration. And then just as I was about to do so a magically beautiful and unearthly passage, like nothing I had ever heard before came floating across my aural landscape. Then there are passages which experiment with different scales (Arabic in one case) and bi-tonality or atonality some work but some sound a little clogged and need thinning.

Also, by his own admission Ogdon wrote, “I look to composing as a hobby that I enjoy. I devote myself more to playing and treat composition as a spare time thing” but how he found that spare time I don’t know. Apparently his widow Brenda, has in her possession almost two hundred works including two piano concertos (one of which Ogdon recorded) four operas and various sonatas.

Hay describes the Sonata (1961) as one of Ogdon’s most technically demanding pieces for piano and the octave glissandi as exciting way “to close a great and underrated sonata” – but it will probably remain ‘underrated” because even very fine pianists might well shy away from its virtuosity if not its unconventional construction and waywardness.

But what about the pluses. There are hugely exciting moments. The finale of the Sonata is, at just five minutes or so, well designed and a reminder of Prokofiev’s sonata finales. The Six Caprices which make up Kaleidoscope (1967-70 rev 1988) begin with a wild Scherzo Brilliante and later there are two Preludes and Fugues, one even a little Bacchian, another using an atonal line, a ‘theme by Harry Birtwistle”. It also has a delicate Barcarolle and a wonderfully evocative ‘A Winter’s Day’ a reminder of what Ogdon’s music can achieve when it errs towards a greater simplicity and delicacy. Overall this was the work which captivated me the most and I think that its because the movements are succinct, contrasting and well shaped.

The most beautiful piece and one not typical of the rest is the Ballade, which seems to date from 1969. It is in one movement and is basically gentle, and interestingly and deliberately bi-tonal .The final ending of F sharp against C major is magical. It seems that it was Brenda Ogdon who often played the work and is much less virtuosic and over-bearing than say the over-long Variations and Fugue. Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised to discover that this is loosely based, it seems, on Busoni’s, perhaps I should say infamous, Fantasia Contrapuntistica a favoured work of Ogdon’s. The Variations are astonishingly eclectic in style including an utterly frenzied number two.

One’s total admiration goes out to the extraordinary, Ogdonian talents of Tyler Hay who is just 24. He makes a point of performing some of the most savagely difficult piano music ever written, and composers much admired by Ogdon like Alkan and Rachmaninov are therefore in his repertoire. I can’t help but wonder if Hay will record more Ogdon or return to Ogdon’s music when he is much older and has performed more of the outstanding piano works of the last 200 years. Will he have a different, more lyrical perspective on Ogdon’s offerings or will he reject them?

This is a disc for the piano specialist but the Ballade and the Six Caprices are fascinating and attractive works which are well worth the cost of the CD.

Gary Higginson

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