WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2; Preludes, Opp. 23 & 32; Études-tableaux, Opp. 33 & 39; Corelli Variations; Nocturne No. 1; Nocturne No. 2; Nocturne No. 3
PERFORMER: John Ogdon (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 67938 2
These previously unissued Rachmaninov sessions date from 1988, a year before John Ogdon’s premature death at the age of 52. By and large, their posthumous release tarnishes the pianist’s reputation. While Ogdon’s fragile state of mind at this late stage of his career didn’t impede his ability to wrap his huge hands around the gnarly scores he doted upon, the artistry behind the technique had markedly eroded. The thunderous sonorities and sabre-like passagework Ogdon commanded in his 1968 RCA recordings of the Sonatas have lost their rudder, while the Preludes are riddled with clunky phrasing and muddy pedalling (for instance, Op. 23/2 and 7, Op. 32/1, 3, 4 and 7). By contrast to the delicacy and lyricism Ogdon brought to his gorgeous live 1962 Moscow recording of the G sharp minor Prelude, his unyielding tempo and overloud right-hand accompaniment strangles rather than supports the cello-like left-hand melody. Ogdon’s heavy-handed Corelli Variations yield to Ashkenazy’s poise and cumulative momentum.
Comparing Ogdon’s remakes of the Études-tableaux to his earlier 1974 EMI versions (reissued in Philips’s Great Pianists of the 20th Century series), one cannot help but notice his diminished suppleness and finesse. Yet there are moments that bear the authority of a once-great pianist, particularly the intense projection and elemental force of Ogdon’s tone from the third piece onwards in Op. 33, and throughout the second half of Op. 39. Jed Distler