John Ogdon, Master Pianist (1937-1989)

Born in Nottinghamshire but educated at Manchester Grammar School, John Ogden was the greatest English pianist of his generation. He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the illustrious company of the composers Harrison Birtwhistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr and the conductor Elgar Howarth. Together they formed the New Music Manchester group to publicise and perform contemporary music. Later he studied with Denis Matthews and the legendry Myra Hess and Egon Petri. He had a fabulous technique and it was no surprise that that he won jointly with Vladimir Ashkenazy the Moscow International Tchaikovsky competition in 1962, having already won the Budapest Liszt Competition the previous year.

I saw him in performance only once when he was at the height of his powers, Massively talented he was physically massive too and I remember him crouched over the keyboard. The music critic Edward Greenfield said of him that there was no gentler giant in music. I have recently been given a new album of his recordings, including several of his own compositions which have never before been published.

(EMI – 70th Anniversary edition).

He was never a well man but had a severe breakdown in 1973 which was never fully diagnosed but it may have been manic depression. For many years he was out of action but then began to play again in public. I taped two of his performances of the Rachmaninoff No.2 when he was on tour with I think the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, but whilst there was still the excitement of a dedicated performance, there were many anxious moments when he was clearly below form.

As well as a pianist he was also a composer of more than 200 works which include four operas, two large works for orchestra, songs, chamber music and of course compositions for the piano some of which are included in the discs I have referred to.

They are all stored as an archive in the Royal Northern College of Music. He also made piano transcriptions of many works by other composers.

Widely respected as a kind and gentle man, his death was mourned by many. Together with friends and colleagues, his wife, the pianist Brenda Lucas Ogdon, established The John Ogdon Foundation in 1993 to ‘inspire and assist young musicians to develop in romantic piano and contemporary music, and to raise awareness of Ogdon as a composer’. Its Patron is Vladimir Ashkenazy. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – creatively driven as was his onetime fellow student – says of John Ogdon that he was ‘a genius of enormous sensitivity and very great humour’.

It’s a sad story, but a wonderful legacy.