John Ogdon’s father was an English teacher and amateur musician who spent three years in a psychiatric institution due to a mental breakdown. His youngest child, John, began to play the piano at the age of five and when he was six the family moved to Manchester where John was enrolled at the Royal Northern College of Music to study piano with Iso Elinson and composition with Richard Hall. Ogdon’s parents sent him to Manchester Grammar School at the age of ten and during these years he voraciously read music scores from the library forming a vast knowledge of the repertoire, much of which he retained in his extraordinary memory.
At the age of sixteen Ogdon returned to the Royal Northern College of Music studying piano with Claude Biggs and composition with Thomas Pitfield. During these years he came into contact with the Manchester New Music Group, giving premières of works by Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle as well as by himself. He also was introduced to the music of the Second Viennese School. At his graduation concert he played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15 with the student orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli.
In 1956 Ogdon entered the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, choosing to play works by Alkan, Brahms, Liszt and Beethoven (the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata). The twelve prizewinners included such familiar names as Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Browning, Lazar Berman, André Tchaikovsky, Tamás Vásáry and many others less well-known, but Ogdon’s was not amongst them.
The three months that Ogdon spent with Egon Petri during the winter of 1957 proved to be the most important of his education. In what must have been a wonderful experience for Ogdon, Petri, a student and close friend of Ogdon’s idol Ferruccio Busoni, imparted to the young student many insights into the compositions of Busoni as well as introducing him to the music of Alkan. On his return to Manchester Ogdon studied with Denis Matthews and performed and broadcast for the BBC. In November 1958 he performed a work that would become associated with him, Busoni’s Piano Concerto Op. 39. At that time the work was never played, and Ogdon’s virtuosity and understanding of it created a sensation.
Ogdon continued to learn from informed teachers, and his next choice was Gordon Green. Participation in competitions, his Proms debut (playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1) and London recital debut meant that 1959 was a busy year for Ogdon. He also won second place in the piano concerto competition of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society; first place went to Spaniard Joaquin Achucarro. In 1961 Ogdon won a Liszt competition in London, created to promote the film Song without End. From then he began to play all over Britain, and in preparation for entry to the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition sought tuition from Ilona Kabós. At the competition he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 and was awarded joint first place with Vladimir Ashkenazy. This, of course, led to an enormous number of engagements and Ogdon worked incessantly for the next decade, touring the world and playing in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Far East, Israel and former Eastern block countries. He never declined an invitation to play, even substituting for indisposed pianists whenever possible. He also began a recording schedule, and stories abound of him learning works the night before recording or performing, relying on his phenomenal sight-reading abilities, memory and stamina.
In the mid 1960s Ogdon’s behaviour began to become erratic. He continued to perform, but toward the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s his behaviour became increasingly unstable and irrational. He was treated with drugs and often hospitalised. The remainder of his life was clouded with mental illness, diagnosed as schizophrenia. In 1975 Ogdon accepted a post as Professor of Piano at the University of Indiana Music School in Bloomington, but by 1978 he was in a Bloomington hospital being treated with lithium. He retained his post until 1980 and during the 1980s even continued to perform in between periods of hospitalisation, but he never regained the power and conviction of his earlier days. Although critics were kind to him, his performances revealed only an impression of the pianist his former self had been.
Ogdon performed works such as Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica and gave the first of
performance of Sorabji’s four-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum, music which a very small percentage of the audience would know intimately. He was also a composer and wrote a piano concerto, string quartet, brass quintet and sonatas for various instruments. A large symphony inspired by the work of author Herman Melville was left incomplete at the time of his death.
Some of Ogdon’s earliest recordings were made for EMI in March 1961, before he had won the Tchaikovsky Competition. A Busoni–Liszt Recital was the title of the earliest LP showing his preference of repertoire. His performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat given at the Competition was issued on compact disc by BMG in 1998. Here is the twenty-five-year-old Ogdon, uninhibited and full of life, giving a performance that is at once imaginative, musical and exciting. Many of Ogdon’s Liszt recordings from the 1960s have been issued on compact disc by Testament and Philips, whilst Philips devote four discs to him in their Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century Series. Highlights of the Liszt recordings are the Mephisto-Waltz No. 1, the rarely heard Liebestraum No. 1 and the Réminiscences de Don Juan. Ogdon was always keen to play less often-heard music, and of Liszt he recorded a disc in 1966 which included some of the pieces written at the end of Liszt’s life. In some of the Liszt works however, such as Gnomenreigen and the Grande Étude de Paganini No. 2, Ogdon seems at times to be trying to push his technique beyond its limits, yet in La Campanella (played in Busoni’s arrangement) his dexterity is breathtaking. Perhaps his most famous recording is that of the Piano Concerto Op. 39 by Busoni. Recorded over four days in June 1967 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Daniell Revenaugh it is still one of the best performances of this mammoth work on disc. This is the type of music that Ogdon revelled in and his committed reading of the solo part is a testament to his own type of genius. Amongst the EMI recordings from the 1960s are core repertoire works for piano and orchestra by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Franck and Liszt and also a good deal of contemporary British music including Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto and Piano Sonata No. 2, and a disc of works by Hoddinott, Goehr, Hall, Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies. In 1967 a two-LP set was issued of Tippett’s Piano Sonata No. 1, Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH and Ogdon’s own Theme and Variations.
The late 1960s saw Ogdon recording for RCA. The company allowed him to record unusual and fascinating repertoire: a disc of works by Carl Nielsen, Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonatas Nos 1 and 2, Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano and a work close to Ogdon’s heart, Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106. The Alkan was recorded at a time when few pianists of Ogdon’s calibre played, let alone recorded, this composer’s work. To date only the Alkan has been reissued on compact disc. This period also saw Ogdon making a few recordings for Decca. His April 1969 recording of Messiaen’s complete Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus is extremely fine, as is his recording of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Neville Marriner with whom he also recorded Stravinsky’s Capriccio. His liking for unusual works led him to record a piano concerto by Mendelssohn (written when the composer was only thirteen years of age) with the same forces.
Returning to EMI in the early 1970s Ogdon recorded all of Scriabin’s piano sonatas and some of his solo pieces, and the complete Études-Tableaux by Rachmaninov in 1974.
Live BBC broadcasts of both Liszt piano concertos have been issued by IMG/BBC Legends. The first concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Constantin Silvestri from a concert given in 1967 is particularly fine, where the excitement of a live performance is captured. The Concerto No. 2, from 1970, is no less good, whilst a studio performance of Liszt’s rarely heard Grande Fantaisie de bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini is a fine example of Ogdon performing technically-demanding rarely-played virtuoso music without ever sounding bombastic or vulgar. He never used Liszt’s music to promote himself, but rather gave performances that arose from the cerebral man rather than the showman.
During the 1980s Ogdon recorded three discs of popular classics for IMP and music more closely associated with him for Altarus including the Fantasia contrappuntistica by Busoni and Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum. It has to be said that most of the later recordings are not as successful as the ones Ogdon made in the 1960s and early 1970s. In November 1988 he recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky for what was to have been a complete series for the Collins label. This recording does not show Ogdon in a favourable light, and he died the following August.
Prodigiously gifted, Ogdon was the greatest British pianist of the second half of the twentieth century, his talent and repertoire unmatched by any other British pianist of the time. He seemed comfortable with the intricacies of music by Busoni, Messiaen and Sorabji, enjoyed the virtuosity of Liszt and Scriabin and took on the challenge of the most demanding works of the repertoire.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
|BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concerto No. 5 / 32 Variations, WoO 80 / SCHUBERT, F.: Piano Sonata No. 19 (Ogdon, Horenstein) (1969, 1972)
|BRAHMS, J.: Piano Concerto No. 2 / BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonata No. 32 (Ogdon, Halle Orchestra, Barbirolli) (1963, 1966)