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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Piano Pleasures: John Ogdon and the Busoni Concerto

Ferruccio Busoni. From the Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a titan of the early 20th century. He stands at a crossroads: the end of Romanticism and the start of modern neo-Classicism. Italian-born but German-trained, Busoni was a virtuoso composer/pianist, armed with a colossal technique forged in the fiery furnaces of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. His music is often complex to the point of obtusity, necessitating repeated listens to assimilate everything this Faustian artist was trying to say.

There are some big piano concertos in the concert repertory. But the Busoni work, like its creator, was a real original-- a five-movement megatherium lasting an hour and ten minutes. Busoni required a huge orchestra, a nimble soloist, and even a male chorus, in the final movement. This last had never been done in a piano concerto. When Busoni fell out of fashion following his death, the concerto went with him. It was long seen as a white elephant, a work whose very complexity defied performance. Worst of all, its solo part is hellishly difficult, but not flashy, Virtuoso players still avoid it today.

John Ogdon (1937-1989) was a titan among pianists. Throughout his erratic career, this ebullient virtuoso specialized in "unplayable" composers like Scriabin, Sorabji, Alkan and of course, Busoni. He played with a mix of delicate filigree and elemental power, and was ideally suited to champion the composer's lone piano concerto. Ogdon recorded this work at Abbey Road Studios in June of 1967 studios. It was an exciting session. Pink Floyd occupied one recording studio, working on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Ogdon and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had to face a series of musical challenges. Not the least was having the session's conductor, Daniell Revenaugh, "temporarily borrowed" by Paul McCartney to complete orchestral parts on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

John Ogdon recording at Abbey Road Studios, 1967.
© 2007 The John Ogdon Foundation
In the middle of all this psychedelic activity, Ogdon, Revenaugh and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra worked their own kind of magic. Ogdon skates through the first four movements with jaw-dropping ease. He plays with power and restraint, working with and not against the orchestra, blending into the thick contrapuntal textures before soaring above the orchestra in a burst of virtuoso fireworks. Revenaugh (who made no other major commercial recordings as a conductor) leads the huge score in a stirring, confident performance. The wordless choral finale (sung by the male voices of the John Alldis Choir) is a stunning final effect.

Happily, this recording is still in the EMI catalogue. It is available as a stand-alone piece on a single budget disc. Better yet, the Ogden recording was reissued in 1998 as part of a two-CD set, Vol. 72 in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century . (This is a series of 100 two-disc DigiPaks celebrating the importance of piano music. Mostly, it's pretty good.) Here, the Busoni Concerto is accompanied by the Variations and Fugue on Chopin's Prelude in c minor, a playful, yet technically challenging work. Recorded in 1960, its inclusion here proves to be an entertaining prelude to the Concerto itself. The set also includes an interesting performance of the Alkan Concerto pour piano seul along with works by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.

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