Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)
John Ogdon (piano)
Both recorded in 1967, the Beethoven at Decca Studios, London, and the Nielsen in England
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: April 2014
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL ORIGINALS 88883768572
Duration: 74 minutes
John Ogdon – along with Vladimir Ashkenazy – shared First Prize at the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition, and became particularly well-known as a performer of rare and contemporary music. Unfortunately it could also be said that he became even more famous through having a major mental breakdown (possibly caused by bipolar disorder) and while clearly a very fine pianist, since his premature death in 1989, he hasn’t been elevated to the pantheon of piano greats.
Originally recorded for RCA Red Seal, his approach to Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata is romantic. In the first movement, the main tempo is reasonably fast, but not rushed. Ogdon isn’t afraid to use the sustaining pedal (although sometimes it is overused), rubato and discrete tempo variation, which allows the development section to live and breathe, and there is a quiet sense of authority and concentration behind every note. Ogdon takes a relaxed view of the brief scherzo, the trio is in-tempo, but he observes the Presto marking as the music moves into a two-four time-signature and also the change to Prestissimo for the extraordinarily concise transition back to the opening. At 15 minutes the tempo for the sublime Adagio should be too fast (Solomon’s 22 remains the benchmark here) but Ogdon plays it as a Chopin Nocturne and just about gets away with it through sheer beauty of tone, beautifully judged dynamic and tempo flexibility and the ability to convey absolute calm. Thankfully the introduction to the finale carries the same gravitas as at the end of slow movement and the fugue is taken at a measured tempo. There is a sense of struggle, massive tolling bass chords, and never once does Ogdon’s tone become unintentionally harsh. This is a superb example of power-pianism used solely for interpretative ends. Ogdon’s overall approach – in our own authenticity-obsessed age – may well raise a few eyebrows. The piano sound is heavyweight, and sforzando and staccato markings are often ignored, but taken on its own terms, this performance is completely consistent and satisfying.
For some inexplicable reason the music of Carl Nielsen still isn’t part of the core repertoire and his piano music is virtually unknown. Unfortunately it seems that Sony doesn’t think much of him either, given that the booklet-note of the Beethoven LP (LSC 3123, first released in 1969) is reproduced in full, but there isn’t a single word about the Nielsen, which is unacceptable, especially as the distinguished musicologist, composer and Nielsen scholar, Robert Simpson, wrote the original introduction. Also the Nielsen LP (LSC 3002, 1968) has its cover reproduced with a mono catalogue-number appended, which is odd, or an oversight.
The two featured works formed the first side of the vinyl, and both are masterpieces. Nielsen composed the Chaconne in his early-thirties and it opens with a sparse sixteen-bar ground-bass figure that the right-hand then mirrors, a series of eight-bar variations follow that encompass a huge range of feeling, contain sounds that no-one other than Nielsen could have imagined, and the work is crowned by a tranquil extended coda, whose extraordinary final page of scales made up of groups of sixty-fourth notes played as quintuplets creates an exquisite, otherworldly effect. Three years later (1919) the composer published the dark, subdued, six-movement Suite. The whole work seems to be imbued with the spirit of the dance, while still conveying a profound sense of bleakness and unease. It really is inexplicable that such great music should remain virtually unknown and, very simply, Ogdon’s readings of both Nielsen works here are the best.
When working in London, RCA often used Decca equipment, thus the piano tone is full and rounded with each register evenly balanced, and there is clarity and a reasonably extended dynamic range. When compared with the US and British LP pressings the overall balance is slightly more forward, and – as always – digitalisation has degraded the timbre, so that the sound doesn’t live and breathe in the same way, but for a low-resolution compression of a 24bit 96kHz digital master, this is pretty good.