Jeremy Lee writes
To mark the 25th anniversary of the passing of British virtuoso pianist John Ogdon in 1989, RCA has wisely exhumed his complete recordings for the label, and since Ogdon did not record prolifically for RCA (most of his recordings are for EMI) this original jacket collection fits snugly on 6 discs at a very attractive price. The sticker on the box says that 4 LPs enjoy their first release on CD–God knows where these recordings have been all this while. Ogdon was not the most consistent pianist, and his RCA recordings reflect this unevenness at times, but all in all these recordings are most fascinating.
I should start with the Alkan Concerto for Solo Piano since I acquired this box mainly for this item–it has appeared on Philips’ Great Pianists of the 20th Century series but as expected it has been deleted–and regular readers of this blog will already know that I am an Alkan fanatic. Recorded in 1969, this is the very first complete recording of the Alkan Concerto, predating the second one (Ronald Smith’s on EMI) by 8 years. And as the cliché goes, Ogdon plays this then-unheard-of work with a palpable sense of discovery. He shapes the whole first movement into one gigantic sweep, never stopping once to sniff the melodic flowers on the way, and as a result he only needs less than 27 minutes while modern recordings (Hamelin, Gibbons) time out at 30 minutes. That is not to say he rushes through it: his caressing of the melodic contours are exquisitely done, and yet in the faster bits he goes bonkers with his gigantic technique. The second movement is as dramatic and brooding as any, while the third movement could probably be done with a bit more passion and flair. I also think that the dynamic range of the playing could have been greater (or is it the recording’s fault?). Plenty of wrong notes and misreads and an entire bar in the finale missing notwithstanding, this is an intriguing prèmiere recording, one that Alkan fans will definitely want to hear.
Another interesting item is the Liszt recital in Japan dating from 1972. Ogdon’s Liszt has been variable, but his Reminiscences de Don Juan on EMI is one of my very favorites, and his RCA Liszt is similarly spectacular. Ogdon had a great technique, and his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 fully displays that (I’ve reviewed it in detail here), as well as his astonishing Mazeppa and Feux Follets (darn exciting–yes, lots of wrong notes in the latter, but I don’t really care), a suave La Campanella, a hair-raising Grand Galop Chromatique, and a demonic Mephisto Waltz No. 1. His repeated notes in the Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli are inhumanly fast (on a par with Hamelin and Tiempo, perhaps?) but he sings the Italianate melodies with great panache. Maybe there are more sensitive performances of Il Pensiero and Au Bord d’un Source available (oh, Berman), but those are only two pieces.
The rest of the programme truly highlights Ogdon’s best: absolutely thrilling pianism through flashy display of his astounding technique. The Hammerklavier appeared individually on Sony Masters just a month ago, and I bought that release only to have it duplicated by this box a few weeks later. Never mind. This Hammerklavier has been long due for a release on CD, and when it was on LP it had received many positive reviews. It is justly acclaimed: the first movement is nigh-on perfect (such tremendous gusto in the opening bars!), demonstrating through its gigantic sweep a complete mastery of architecture, as if you could digest the entire movement in one bite, and the scherzo is suitably light-hearted while also showing its shadowy, sinister side (maybe we could use a bit more “minaccioso” in the terrifying repeated B octave crescendos, but that’s only a small point to note). The great Adagio, taken at a faster tempo than usual (15 minutes, as opposed to Schnabel’s 18 and Barenboim’s 22) is soulful and pensive. Meanwhile, Ogdon takes an interesting view of the introduction to the great fugue of the Finale. He doesn’t accelerate during the syncopated and shifting chords to presto; instead he takes a headlong Presto rush that immediately tosses us into the ensuing contrapuntal action–which is, disappointingly, not very special. Ogdon did not have the best contrapuntal fingerwork, and it shows here, in contrast to Kempff’s linearity and, of more recent favorites, Levit’s demonic drive. Recorded in Decca’s Studio No. 3, the piano sports a golden Decca piano tone, and accordingly it’s the best-sounding item in this set.
Ogdon re-recorded the Rachmaninov sonatas around 20 years after this RCA version, but unfortunately that was after his mental breakdown, and he certainly was way past his prime then (issued on EMI, it’s a sad “might-have-been” of Ogdon’s art). However this RCA version was recorded at the height of Ogdon’s powers, and it shows very clearly here. The Rachmaninov 1st sonata in particular is a terrific rendition, full of power, beauty and soul, and even if you are not extremely familiar with the work (as I admittedly am), this version will captivate you instantly to the sheer beauty and drama of the work. The 2nd sonata is equally inspired, and while it may lack a bit of the explosion and fireworks Horowitz famously brought to it, Ogdon brings sufficient fire and poetry to pull this difficult work off.
There are also a few rarities (besides the Alkan Concerto) in this box: one disc devoted to some piano music by Carl Nielsen, which is often interesting (the Chaconne sometimes reminds me of Webern’s Passacaglia), on a par with Martin Roscoe’s complete traversal on Hyperion, and Mennin’s Piano Concerto and Yardumian’s Passacaglia, Recitative and Fugue, which are basically unmemorable modernist works (the Yardumian marginally more interesting), though played (and conducted) with much conviction. (The Mennin and Yardumian pieces are accompanied by Igor Buketoff conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.) Sure, there are some uneven moments in this box set, but on the whole Ogdon’s strengths, which are plenty and impressive, are manifest through his convicting and memorable performances that never fail to arouse interest and excite. Overall the sonics are never less than good, and coupled with RCA’s budget price, attractive original jacket packaging and Jed Distler’s informative and interesting booklet notes, this release is a highly desirable item, not just for Ogdon fans, but for lovers of great virtuoso pianism at its very best.
- Album name: John Ogdon: The Complete RCA Album Collection
- Performers: John Ogdon (piano); Igor Buketoff (conductor); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra [Mennin, Yardumian]
- Label: RCA 88843039072
- Sonics: Stereo ADD
- Total playing time: 4:59:05