on 18 January 2016
Recording over 80 composers and hundreds of pieces over a relatively short period of time,John Ogden was no ordinary piano tinkler.There should be no doubt that he was one of the world's greatest ever pianists.There does not appear to be much in the piano literature that he wouldn't tackle,he had a refreshing interest away from the conservative and we'll trodden German
In this set of 17 cd's we only encounter 42 composers,ranging from JS Bach
to Birtwistle,catholically encompassing 19th Century Romanticism,Central European Nationalism and the music of his 1960's contemporaries.recorded over a period of 16 years,from 1960 to 1976,most from the period before his breakdown in 1973.
It would be no exaggeration to say that with his tremendous technique and voracious appetite for notes,he mastered all the musical challenges and genres thrown at him.If he had been a great explorer he would have conquered Everest,
gone to the moon,and sailed the seven seas,so enquiring and adventurous was his mind.Suffice to say,all the performances are excellent,most equal to any performance you'd care to mention.
I have to admit to having been allergic in the past to Tchaikovsky 's first,Rachmaninoff's second and Grieg's piano concertos.Ogden's no nonsense approach to these works are free from the rhetoric which has always worried me about these works,allowing me to come to terms with them and enjoy them for the first time.
The two Mendelssohn and Schumman concertos are beautifully presented,again
not lingering on their romantic tendencies.Although he had no Haydn and very little Mozart in his repertoire,his crisp,crystalline approach to the romantics leads me to believe he would have been a natural in the classical repertoire.
He holds his head high in the Chopin,Rachmaninoff and Liszt solo works,tender,
volcanic and hair raising in equal measure.
Many of the works played here were new to me,Mendelssohn's Ronda Brilliant,Busoni's Chopin Variations and Fugue,Turandots Frauengemach and Sonatina No.6,Dukas's Sonata and Schmitt's Deux Mirages-all played with splendid aplomb.Lovely performances of Faure's Ballade,Litolff's Scherzo,The Paganini Rhapsody of Rachmaninoff,Franck 's Variations Symphonies ( a piece he learnt overnight so that there could be filler for the Tchaikovsky concerto-
naturally his modesty forbade him from mentioning this to his conductor,Sir John Barbirolli), and the rarely performed Concerto No.1 of Alexander Glazunov. This a typically tuneful and beautifully orchestrated piece from this composer,
however it's form is unusual as the 2nd movement consists of a theme and 9
Variations.Very enjoyable,more piquant from a composer who sometimes over eggs the pudding.
And there is the first of the 2 real bonkers pieces- Busoni's gargantuan Concerto.
If Berlioz had composed one it would be this.It shouldn't work ,but does- a lot of the time over the 70 minute span the piano plays an obligatto role,a texture in the overall scheme,at other times the piano plays the more traditional role of being the adversary to the orchestra, the last movement also includes a choir.I believe that the piece has been recorded 5 times,it is rarely performed in concert( no surprise really - any self respecting concert promoter would have a panic attack at presenting such a rare,expensive work to the public -what would you plan it with?).I had to play the piece 3 times in succession to even start to get to grips with it!
There are few examples of mid 20th Century music here,one of the few disappointments of this collection.I would have liked to hear Ogden play Prokofiev, Stravinsky,Szymanowski and Strauss amongst others. What we do have though are the first and third concertos,the Sonata for Two pianos and Percussion of Bartók and the second Concerto of Shostakovich. I was suprised to see that Sargent was the conductor in the Bartók concertos.The first is played at a fair lick,the first movement much more lyrical than usual,bringing out the peasant folk music that Bartók collected.At times I was reminded of Petrushka,
a piece Stravinsky had originally intended to be a concertante work.Bartók used a theme from The Firebird in the last movement of the 2nd Concerto.The 2nd movement usually is depicted as night music,quiet,slow and mysterious- not here,Ogden's night wood is full of nocturnal animals scurrying about.The last movement is a tour de force without too much of the brutality of most other interpretations.The 3rd Concerto,always the most gentle of the 3,is given a relaxed performance,a peasant wedding dance with lots of good humour and
laughter.Ogden's wife,Brenda Lucas,joins him in the Sonata in a genial performance in a work which can sound severe and austere.Again the dances of
Bartók's Hungary are on show,also the relation to Contrasts written for Benny Goodman are brought out.Shostakovich's Concerto was written for his son Maxim in the late 50's and is considered to be a less substantial example than the first.A lot of it is light and sparkly,the second movement has a rather attractive tune.This is not the Shostakovitch that withdrew the 4th Symphony in the 1930's but rather the film score The Gadfly with piano accompaniment. It's all very jolly,I think even Stalin would have had no objections!!!
And now to the music that I most wanted to here in this set,that from his British contemporaries while he was at Manchester and colleagues and friends in the 60's.I had only owned the Tippett works,the Concerto and the first two sonatas.Tippett can be wild,needing taming to pull in his tendencies for middle age spread.In the Concerto I don't think that the performance totally succeeds in doing this,rather than being totally coherent it is a succession of Lovely dreamy
moments punctuated with outbursts.The sonatas are more successful in conveying Tippett's adventurous and visionary spirit.There are works by Rawsthorne and Hoddinott,two composers not normally associated with solo piano music,both bracing and tonal.Rawsthorne always reminds me of the
useful music of Hindemith,not a note too many,rather faceless,enjoyable listening but ultimately unmemorable.
The works that,for me,sum up the ethos of Ogden are those by his contemporaries at Manchester. There is an insatiable thirst for the new,the complex,the thrill of the chase.That questing spirit was served by having so many talented people surround him at music college and that the fruits of his
collaborations he managed to persuade EMI to record.I found all the music fascinating, difficult and challenging,none of it repelling,worth many listening to try and understand the complexities.It is testament to Ogden's great facility in
quickly learning new music that we are able to have these recordings despite his remarkable,draining schedule. I will only pick out one work from this oeuvre, that being the Passacaglia on DSCH by Stevenson. This is the other bonkers work!Based on the 4 notes that spell Shostakovich' s name it is a continuous piece lasting over 80 minutes. God only knows what stamina and concentration it requires from the performer,but I was mentally exhausted at the end!There are
countless peaks and troughs,tremendous variety and at stage lost,so clever is the composer in controlling his material.
The set ends with a series of piano Lollypops,send us all home happy.I suspect that these were the pay off for EMI to offset the loses they must have incurred
from the more unusual material.All Lovely ,all relaxing,all something to wallow in after the titans that came before.
Apparently this set is just the tip of a recording iceberg,let's hope much more of this legacy is released soon.