John Ogdon (1937-89)


In contrast to my other musical heroes John Ogdon was a classical musician, a concert pianist.  Early in my days at music college (1981) I saw a piece on the TV news about a great pianist who was making a comeback...not from retirement but from an extremely serious mental condition.

John Ogdon had been, as a young man, one of the best two pianists in the world, along with Vladimir Ashkenazy, the brilliant Russian.  His performance of Liszt's Eb Concerto at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, 1962 earned a 4 minute standing ovation, first prize and rocketed the quiet, unassuming man to 'world champion' status. But, at the height of his genius, John began to suffer from manic depression and schizophrenia.  His descent into what at the time would, undoubtedly, have been called 'madness' is told frankly in the authorized biography written by his wife, and fellow concert pianist, Brenda Lucas-Ogdon, 'Virtuoso'.

Something about the giant hulk of a figure hunched over the piano that I saw on that news clip captured my attention and I watched and read about his comeback with a lot of interest as it happened, and in the ensuing eight years.  During this time, as an avid record collector, I tried to build a small collection of his recordings, only to find them extremely hard to find.  A few recordings appeared on CD but it was in 2nd Hand record shops where I picked up a few treasured pieces of vinyl.

There were occasional TV appearances as well, particularly as his 'playing form' came almost back to his former strength at the end of the decade.  John had an amazing memory, was renowned as the best sight-reader in the world and his recordings of works by Rachmaninoff, Busoni and Liszt are regarded by critics as definitive versions.  In 1989, ITV's acclaimed 'South Bank Show' featured him at work, composing music and performing that of others, including Soragbi's 'Opus Claricembalisticum', a  280 minute epic piano piece which no other pianist had the stamina to attempt!  He was also in the process of recording the entire works of Rachmaninoff for a new, CD edition.

Also in 1989, the BBC filmed and screened a film version of the afore-mentioned biography, 'Virtuoso', starring Alfred Molina as John but using John's own hands at the keyboard and, for which, John played all the piano parts.  It was well-received by critics and public alike, which makes one wonder why it has never been screened again since!  John and Brenda appeared as guests on TV chat-show 'Wogan' performing a piano duet together...and then, completely unexpectedly, John died in August of broncho-pneumonia. 

And how soon we forget at times!  From being all over the media back then I can honestly say I have not heard John Ogdon's mentioned more than a few times in the whole of the last 15 years.  The Rachmaninoff set (which was completed) has, to my knowledge, never been released and this great pianist had faded into distant memory while the recordings of his contemporaries such as Ashkenazy continue to be remastered, re-released and enjoyed world-wide.

I listen to very little classical music nowadays - maybe the odd bit of Mahler or Wagner, some Mozart and a few visits to the opera excepted.  But I come back to Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto time and time again - one of the most beautiful pieces of the Romantic Era...and it's always John's recording.

(Below, excerpts from 2 newspaper obituaries and the Radio Times tribute.  Click thumbnails to enlarge)

link to the webpage for the John Ogdon Foundation

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