John Ogdon Plays John Ogdon

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 5

On April 15, 1979 John Ogdon gave a faculty recital at Indiana University entirely devoted to his own compositions, preserved on the present release. Pianistically speaking, Ogdon is loaded for bear, as he tosses off breathtakingly fast runs, huge chordal skips, and dense contrapuntal passages with relentless energy and, so far as one can tell, more precision than we might expect at this stage of his career.

A little of Ogdon’s music goes a long way. It’s skillfully and effectively laid out for the piano, yet the vague, not-quite-tonal-not-quite-atonal harmonic idiom and elusive melodic profile create a similar grey patina from one work to the next. A piece might start promisingly, only to lapse into padding, and then find its center again. Notice, for example, the cogency and direction in Sonatina’s sparse contrapuntal interplay and jagged unison lines, in contrast to its relatively rambling faster sequences. The Third Sonata often resembles Messiaen sped up and cut up in the style of “William Burroughs meets Sorabji”.

As an encore, Ogdon calmly announces his “free transcription” of Varlaam’s Song from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, then launches into a barrage of dissonant chromatic runs in both hands and chordal clusters splattering in every direction. Only a hint of Mussorgsky emerges from the din. To my ears, the Theme and Variations (written for Vladimir Ashnekazy) is the most concise, proportioned, and consistently satisfying of Ogdon’s keyboard creations. Perhaps the presence of an audience elicits a more dynamic and fancifully nuanced performance compared to Ogdon’s more formalized EMI studio version.

However you respond to Ogdon’s compositions, it’s clear that they are the products of a formidable musical personality and ought to be made available. As such, this is a valuable release, enhanced by detailed, informative notes on the music by Brenda Lucas, the pianist’s widow, and a touching personal tribute from producer David DeBoor Canfield. While the sonics are considerably less than studio quality, they certainly are listenable, considering their archival provenance.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

    Piano Sonata No. 2; Sonatina; Dance Suite; Variations and Fugue; Theme and Variations; Piano Sonata No. 3; Varlaam’s Song

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