A feast at their fingers

John Ogdon 60th Anniversary Gala Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
John Ogdon would have been 60 this coming Monday. He died in August 1989 of bronchial pneumonia, less than two weeks after his last concert, a recital for the Park Lane Group. The PLG, a great promoter of new talent, had also given Ogdon his London recital debut, and, on Tuesday evening, they put on a marathon benefit concert with the John Ogdon Foundation, showing off a glittering array of pianistic talent. The two youngest performers were both born in 1972. Naomi Iwase, from Japan, won the first John Ogdon Scholarship Award in 1995, and played two Szymanowski Mazurkas, followed by a Chopin Nocturne and Waltz, with impeccable poise and clarity. Mark Glasser, PLG Young Artist two years ago, played a piece by Ogdon himself - a short, rather melancholy Bagatelle - and an interminable, motor-driven toccata entitled, with due pomp, Motus Perpetuus (?) Temporibus Fatalibus, by Ronald Stevenson, whose music - or at least some of it - Ogdon admired.

Which makes you wonder. Ogdon had prodigious technical gifts; he performed Brahms's Second Concerto with John Pritchard conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, reading the music at sight. But, in his later years, much of his playing sounded like sight-reading anyway. That emerged on the short extract shown from London Weekend Television's South Bank Show, screened in 1989: the young Ogdon, hero of the 1962 Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, which he won jointly with Vladimir Ashkenazy, played like an unshorn Samson, but with brains; the older man was a scrambled shadow of his former self, snatching at the keys as if he were swatting flies, projecting little musical sense at all.

As a composer, Ogdon was almost self-effacing, but clear-headed. His widow, Brenda Lucas, swathed in a striking gown of violet velvet, played An American Sonata - the fourth of his 10 sonatas - which Ogdon had dedicated to her in 1984. It had a lean, airy first movement recalling middle-period Copland, a rather rambling slow movement called "Nocturne", though it wasn't very nocturnal, and an intellectual sort of "Barn Dance" as finale. Lucas didn't bring off some of the music's abrupt transitions with as much conviction as she should.

The rest of the evening was a feast of distinguished playing, beginning with Dmitri Alexeev, who performed Brahms's Four Pieces, Op 119, balancing intense feeling with judicious sobriety - in its unostentatious way, as impressive an achievement as any.

Judicious was the word, too, for Peter Donohoe, who played a selection of five Rachmaninov Etudes-tableaux with immaculate command but just a dash of passion missing.

The most sensational feats came after the interval, notably from Boris Berezovsky, who delivered Balakirev's fiendish Islamey with alternating brilliance and delicacy as well as rhythmic discipline, and made it sound, for once, coherent. It should have stopped the show. But later, Nikolai Demidenko made a fair bid for our especial favour, too, with a scorching performance of Liszt's Reminiscences de Don Juan. Goodness only knows what his left hand was doing in the frenzy of the Champagne Aria towards the end, but his left foot was adding some very effective Flamenco effects.

It was a long and, on balance, a hugely enjoyable evening, ending with Donohoe and Berezovsky dispatching the Nocturne and Tarantella from Rachmaninov's Second Suite with a tremendous show of musical muscle as well as precise teamwork. Great stuff. Suddenly, it was 11 o'clock, but we'd hardly noticed the time pass.

Adrian Jack