Arts: A mixed bag of a memorial

Classical; JOHN OGDON PIANO GALA QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL LONDON
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JOHN OGDON - a 20th-century pianistic icon, you might say - died 10 years ago having given his last, characteristically brave recital, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London only 10 days before. The Park Lane Group organised a piano gala on Wednesday night in his memory to raise funds for its Endowment and Young Musicians' Performance Funds, and all the pianists donated their services for free. Galas are, I suppose, meant to be glittering - and long. This one was certainly long, and if it glittered intermittently, that's also in the nature of events such as these.

Alexander Taylor, a Park Lane Group Young Artist from two years ago, had the unenviable task of opening the evening, with Frederic Rzewski's Winnsboro' Cotton Mill Blues, a contemporary piece which uses ostinati and clusters to thrilling - and moving - effect. Taylor played it, from memory, with a great sense of commitment and sharp character. He followed it with Variations sue la Valse du Desir by the unjustly despised German Romantic composer Karl Czerny (he of the famous Studies) - a "gala" piece if ever there was one: truly sparkling and entertaining.

Brenda Lucas, Ogdon's widow, played her husband's American Sonata, which he dedicated to her. Its echoes of country and western music and Samuel Barber are deliberate - the middle movement, indeed, is a homage to Barber - and the finale is a sort of barn dance cum toccata. In these genres, it's quite effective, though while Lucas had obviously absorbed the text, she didn't exactly push the boat out when it came to its spirit.

One of the greatest, most ardent musical love letters any composer has addressed to his wife - or future wife in this case - is Schumann's Fantasie, with which John Lill closed the first half of the very full programme. The Fantasie was also Schumann's homage to Beethoven (its publication was to raise money for a Beethoven memorial), and John Lill's leonine performance powerfully endorsed that connection. He isn't the first, and certainly won't be the last pianist to come unstuck in the perilous coda to the middle movement - one of those accidents that can happen to anyone, and which make recitals such an exciting, unpredictable affair. More worrying, though, was the stolid character which he gave the final movement, which walked rather than flowed.

Really inspired Schumann playing came after the interval, when Frederick (has he dropped the "Freddy" now?) Kempf positively lit up the compendious Humoreske, a piece which he has recently recorded to much critical acclaim. For the first time in the evening, the piano sounded multicoloured and infinitely responsive, a machine to make magic. Rarely does a pianist capture Schumann's volatility, his sensuous tenderness, his bounding excitability like this. It was irresistible. If only Schumann himself could have heard it.

Which left Vladimir Ovchinnikov to wind up the show with Rachmaninov's Variations on a theme of Corelli and Chopin's "Military" Polonaise. Ovchinnikov didn't appear as if he was out to appeal in either work, playing the theme of the Variations excessively slowly. And while he was brilliant and biting in the bravura passages, he was not very alluring or colourful in the more poetic moments. The Polonaise was certainly military - straight- backed and rather boring. At least it ensured that nobody asked for encores, which, after such a long programme, would have been altogether too much.

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