Many a concert pianist spends years and a small fortune developing a distinctive personal presence. England's John Ogdon, 34, comes by his without effort. A huge, goateed, bespectacled, ambling hulk of a man, he is virtually impossible to ignore. It is not just his looks, though, that have made him the leading figure among Britain's younger pianists. Even in an age when glittering technique is almost taken for granted, Ogdon's facility for both the finespun and the fantastic is prodigious. Says Stephen Bishop, 30, a London-based American, and a friendly keyboard rival of Ogdon's: "He has absolutely volcanic energy. I mean, the piano actually moves sometimes."
With such kinetic qualities, Ogdon could easily have gone on to a profitable life of barnstorming the world with war-horse concertos. Instead, after sharing first prize with Vladimir Ashkenazy in Moscow's 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition, he became an evangelist for music that few other major pianists would touch. One of his best LP albums is devoted entirely to some of the piano music of Carl Nielsen (RCA), another to Ferruccio Busoni's hour-long piano concerto (Angel), a woolly and wonderful specimen of Germanic post-romanticism that includes a resounding men's chorus in the finale. Following this bent, Ogdon has become one of the exponents of the current romantic revival. That revival has helped bring forth a small anthology of minor works by major composers (Liszt, Scriabin), as well as some ingratiating works by minor composers (Charles-Henry Valentin Alkan, Max Reger). Ogdon, currently engaged in a six-week tour of the U.S. and Canada, is pleasantly matter-of-fact about this special musical taste: "I've always been interested in out-of-the-way composers, although it's a mystery to me why they are out of the way."
One good reason is that Ogdon is something of an out-of-the-way composer himself. His output already includes 20 works for piano, a string quartet and a brass quintet. His major effort so far is the Piano Concerto No. 1, a three-movement, 25-minute work that he performed brilliantly late last year before an enthusiastic audience in London's Royal Festival Hall. At Christmastime he recorded it for E.M.I, with the Royal Philharmonic under Conductor Lawrence Foster; Angel will be issuing it in the U.S. next fall.
The concerto has the youthful fault of jumbling together too many influences, but reveals Ogdon as an impressively forceful and colorful composer wholike Ogdon the pianisthas a flair for handling big and complicated structures without losing what the pop world would call the big beat. His writing for the piano is flamboyant, excitingly splashy but tamed by good taste. The expertise of his orchestral writing is remarkablebold blocks of brass sound, piquant wisps of woodwind, supple simplicity in the strings. Perhaps the most important thing about his composition is that he has dared to opt for tradition over "now" chic: the idiom is tonal and reflects the post-romantic passions of the early 20th century.