This 4-cd box was issued in 2007 to mark what should have been John Ogdon's 70th birthday. Ogdon did not make 70. In his mid-30's he was stricken with a hereditary neurological disease but tried to keep up the superhuman workload that had been his norm until then, his weakened system finally succumbing to pneumonia in 1989. These four discs obviously serve as a monument to this prodigy, although several alternative selections could have served that purpose equally well. Either students of Ogdon's career and artistry or musicians simply attracted by the range of works on offer and hopeful of making a good investment should find their interest rewarded. Ogdon has probably not yet had the recognition that his colossal genius deserves. There was nothing he could not play, his technical proficiency was as near infinite as makes no difference, and there is a special sense of human sympathy about his interpretations that would surely have marked him out as a man apart if he had been spared longer.
From the `student's' point of view this set offers some of the great man's creative work in the shape of a concerto, a sonata and a set of variations. Also in the unfamiliar class is the Busoni arrangement of Liszt's Rhapsodie espagnole with orchestra, and probably the same goes for Glazunov's concerto in f minor. New to us for a different reason - namely that Ogdon refused to release it - is the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody, and I for one would not have wanted that situation to continue. Otherwise the balance is struck with familiar fare, partly Liszt as being the composer Ogdon recorded most often, and for me the Liszt selection here divides sharply into two - the sonata vs all the rest. Liszt is not much to my taste, but this performance of the sonata had me transfixed. It is epic, it is prophetic, it is awesome. Here as in, say, Messiaen's Vingt Regards, we get a glimpse of what Ogdon the visionary really amounted to. He had an outstanding ability to make an unbroken unity out of a large piece of music, as I have reason to recall from his playing of the huge last movement of Schubert's c minor sonata, taken in what seems like a single breath. This time he has set himself a special challenge by using the version of the sonata prepared by Humphrey Searle, which is considerably longer than the version recorded by Horowitz in 1932, in the era when he was believed to be the only player in the world equal to its technical demands. More music by Liszt is a prospect I normally contemplate with dread, but in the sonata Ogdon, easily on a technical par with Horowitz, has made a partial convert.
That's the sonata, but in the other Liszt jobs here Ogdon is not my first choice as a Liszt player, Cziffra is that. I compared them in the Valse Oubliee #1, where the difference is not great, but also in the Hungarian Fantasia, where Ogdon is no match for Cziffra's diablerie. Cziffra was himself a Hungarian gipsy, of course, but the issue is more a matter of the player's touch. Ogdon's technique was colossal as I have already said, but he was not an out-and-out showman as Cziffra was when required. Ogdon does not usually elect to use a cut-diamond incisive edge on his tone, and there is quite a large category of music where that is precisely what I want. For instance, nobody could surpass Ogdon's fleetness in the Litolff Scherzo, but ...you know what I need not say again. Even in the Bartok concerto, where Ogdon's reading easily stands comparison with the superlative renderings that I own from Pollini and (Rudolf) Serkin, these maestri do incisiveness just a bit more, and all the better for that, although if the last movement served up with gusto as a bacchanale is to your taste, then Ogdon is certainly your guy.
Ogdon first came to prominence when he shared the first prize in the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition with Ashkenazy, choosing for his Tchaikovsky concerto the usual first. I even recall hearing a bit of his performance at the time. It's obviously excellent of its type, and nobody asked me to judge the competition, but for me is it simply too slow. Instead of great oompah chords at the beginning and a heavy-footed trepak for the finale, I like the way Horowitz and Toscanini did the thing, with very fast speeds in the outer movements and incredible machine-gun double octaves from Horowitz. It may be that the judges would not have liked that, certainly not from an escapee from the Soviet Union.
The Franck Symphonic Variations get a first-class performance, comparable with a similar effort from Cziffra, this time not in his showman mode. The Faure Ballade is beautifully and sensitively played, any faint fogginess in the recorded sound on the first disc being less important than in the other works there. If one number is perhaps a little below the standard of the others it is the Glazunov concerto, Ogdon succumbing to temptation to over-use the sustaining pedal; but I see that the date of this performance is 1977, and that is likely, alas, to have been significant. A Russian concerto of more consequence is Rachmaninov's second, and Ogdon's performance , give or take the recorded sound I just mentioned, can stand comparison with, say, Richter's or Cziffra's. I like it well enough done this way, but for me nobody comes near the composer with his burning urgency in the first movement, and I am pleased to note that Stephen Hough may be restoring Rachmaninov's tempo. Nobody seems to know why Ogdon would not issue the Paganini Rhapsody, but there may have been a problem with the sound. That is at least tolerable now, and I particularly recommend the performance, which is not like the sprightly Rubinstein but surprisingly similar to Cherkassky's. Two neglected masters with all-inclusive repertoires, take a salute.