Top Ear

Look no further: This is THE Hammerklavier

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Leonard Ip writes  [translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee]

Before I start, I would like to advise those who have not yet acquired this album to run, not stroll, to your nearest record shop and get it IMMEDIATELY.

Reason 1:  This is one of the greatest interpretations of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata ever;  Reason 2:  This 1967 recording on LP (for the first time transferred to CD) still sounds amazingly good even by today’s standards;  Reason 3:  you never know when it’s going to be pulled off the shelves!

Cognoscenti who are familiar with Ogdon’s art will know that this maestro’s artistry was not consistently great, especially after his mental breakdown at the age of 36.  Even in the same piece of music, the playing could range from God-granted inspiredness to stodgy clumsiness.  This disc of Beethoven and Nielsen, however, shows none of these problems, and it’s also thankfully free from his commonly uneven touch; what it shows is Ogdon in all his Olympian splendor.  The challenges of Hammerklavier don’t have to be further elaborated on, but after hearing Ogdon’s performance, it’s like revisiting this old masterwork with a whole new depth and clarity.  Hear the opening two bars and Ogdon’s impetuous pianism leaps out from the speakers, and the sonority of the chord that rounds off the first phrase is terminated with the agility of a leopard.  Ogdon sinks his fingers into the first movement and scherzo with the utmost assurance:  the double-notes are executed with knife-cut precision, while the pianissimos, high-register filigree and trills register with a luminous transparency.  The entire tension of this immense sonata-form structure captures the listener’s attention from start to finish:  this is the kind of “musical architecture” that flawlessly deals with both the details and the megastructure of the work–Backhaus and Gilels’ interpretations may have their own unique merits, but they don’t surpass Ogdon’s achievement here.

If you think Ogdon’s Adagio will lack depth, you can’t be more wrong:  by executing the movement with a flowing pace (he takes 15 minutes and 22 seconds) and a sensitive touch, Ogdon fully reveals the affecting solitary beauty of the piece, instantly reminding us of the kind of “heavenly whisper” Kempff so memorably conveyed in his two DG recordings.  Ogdon’s daring is manifest in the Finale:  the measureless syncopation section in the lead-up to the Allegro fugue proper takes half a minute under Arrau’s measured control, and 10 seconds under Ogdon’s shattering lightning speed–such imagination and technique!  Allow me conclude with an audacious statement:  this is probably the most pianistically achieved Hammerklavier on record, and in an unprecedentedly heroic fashion, Ogdon re-presents Beethoven’s transcendent musical ambition in the most convincing light imaginable.

While Nielsen’s piano works are pretty much unknown, in the light of Ogdon’s massive repertoire, this is hardly his most esoteric foray.  The Chaconne, Op. 32, displays the polytonality that frequently features in Nielsen’s work, but the theme, rooted in D major, is transformed into 20 variations and an extended coda, ending on the highest D of the keyboard.  Ogdon brings out the voicings with great care and detail, and the coda’s almost interminable pp high-register filigree displays perfect tonal control. The Suite Op. 45 consists of six movements, each featuring distinctive themes and methods of development, and Ogdon uses his bountiful technique and expressivity to bring the unique character of the music to the fore.  The Suite’s ending with nine low octave B flats coincidentally harks back to the opening note of the Hammerklavier sonata (even though the Beethoven and Nielsen items were issued on two separate LPs).

Both recordings (Beethoven and Nielsen) were recorded in September 1967.  The Beethoven was recorded in London’s Decca Studio (the Nielsen was recorded in “England” as the booklet says, but the recording quality has little to distinguish it with the Beethoven), and the recording is not only spacious and intricately detailed, but also sports a huge dynamic range and a gloriously luminescent piano tone, fully capturing Ogdon’s massive sonority.  Ogdon’s achievement here is so considerable that even I was greatly astonished.  To be able to review this CD, whose performance and sound are both so immensely outstanding, is an honor.

[Note:  The performance in this album are also featured in the box set John Ogdon:  The Complete RCA Album Collection, reviewed here by Jeremy Lee.]


  • Album name:  Beethoven:  Piano Sonata No. 29 in B Flat Major “Hammerklavier”, Op. 106;  Nielsen:  Piano Works
  • Performers:  John Ogdon (piano)
  • Label:  Sony Classical Masters 88883768572
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  74:08

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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