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REVIEW: John Ogdon - Living with Genius, BBC Four, broadcast 6 June

11 June 2014

© Tully Potter Collection

John Ogdon: Living with Genius
Directed by Zoe Dobson
Produced by Back2Back
BBC Four First broadcast 6 June, 60 minutes

John Ogdon: Living with Genius opens with a montage of doom-laden compliments; Ogdon’s was ‘a God-given gift’, ‘genius is precious but dangerous’ and ‘when he sat at the piano he became a man possessed’. Having safely rounded up the clichés, the BBC Four programme cuts to a television interview Ogdon and his pianist wife Brenda gave in 1989, discussing Ogdon’s illness and perceived recovery. ‘We’re playing together again, very happily,’ says Brenda. ‘Life is looking rosy?’ asks the interviewer. ‘Oh yes,’ Brenda agrees. Just two months after the interview, John Ogdon was dead, aged 52.

Ogdon’s meteoric rise to fame came after his success at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962, where he took joint first prize with Vladimir Ashkenazy. The filmmakers secured access to previously unseen footage of the competition, featuring Ogdon’s indomitable performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto. An Englishman winning the event was cause for national celebration, and newspaper cuttings show crowds waiting to greet the pianist on his return home. (‘I was a naïve girl from the North of England... It was a hullabaloo,’ recalls Brenda, in a decidedly southern English accent.)

Musicians agree that although Ogdon was a pianistic powerhouse, the beauty of his playing was in his pianissimos. Pianist Peter Donohoe neatly demonstrates Ogdon’s delicate touch at the keyboard via excerpts from the Busoni concerto. The music critic Bryce Morrison, pianist Stephen Hough and Richard Ogdon, John’s son, all
observe Ogdon’s fascination with complex repertoire: Busoni, Liszt, Alkan, Sorabji. ‘He was a composer’s gift,’ remarks Richard.

At the peak of his career, Ogdon played over 200 concerts a year. Hough, we learn, plays around 100 – which keeps his diary full. Travelling took its toll on the overworked Ogdon and contributed to his breakdown in the 1970s. Brenda is often portrayed as the villain in this arrangement, urging him to make hay while the sun shone to sustain their then lavish lifestyle. She is also incorrectly blamed for making the decision to give Ogdon electric shock treatment, which some say irrevocably changed his playing.

Brenda is given the lion’s share of interview time here. At one point she reveals that a colleague had said: ‘You can’t marry him, it’s two peacocks in one room’. In the same clip we hear Brenda’s assertion that ‘[At college] I was the girl star and he was the man star.’ Later, Brenda remembers a look Ogdon gave her which she interpreted as ‘I am a genius, look after me’. There is a sense of irritation, perhaps resentment. But in the context of her life with Ogdon – a man who endured extended periods of hospitalisation, financial ruin and debilitating mental illness – perhaps allowances should be made.

At times this is an illuminating portrait of one of Britain’s greatest musicians (violinist Rodney Friend gives a particularly moving tribute) – but it only scratches the surface. There is enough interesting archival material here for a three-part series, at least.

Claire Jackson

John Ogdon: Living with Genius is available to watch online via iPlayer here

REVIEW: Khatia Buniatishvili, International Piano Series 2013-14, Southbank Centre, London

5 June 2014

Khatia Buniatishvili
Khatia Buniatishvili© Sony

Khatia Buniatishvili
International Piano Series 2013-14
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
4 June

You can’t teach stage presence. Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, 26, has it in spades. Also very pleasing is her ability to produce a range of soft pianissimos that beguile the ear. But there are aspects of her playing that are worryingly awry.

It was brave of her to start with Gaspard de la Nuit (a programme alteration), one of the repertoire’s most demanding works, but the way she conjured up the opening passage was magical, Ondine’s voice heard as a distant apparition above the watery accompaniment. The incessant tolling in Le gibet was skilfully voiced but hardly chilling, especially at such a slow tempo. On the other hand Scarbo was demonically fast, an aspect of Miss Buniatishvili’s playing which is, frankly, her undoing. This is the second time in as many months that I have been at a recital in this hall and heard a pianist with the same phenomenal, staggering dexterity – and been unable to hear much of the music. Is it the acoustic? Did anyone sit out front during the rehearsal and advise on clarity and projection? Of course, the acoustic changes with a full house (which it was last night) but then the artist must adapt. To not hear the notes the composer wrote is one thing, however, but to miss the emotional high point of a work is another: the two big climaxes in Scarbo, which should send a shiver down the spine, went for nothing as Buniatishvili hurtled onwards.

A stage-hand came on to adjust the stool after this but left the stage before the pianist had agreed on the new height. Thus abandoned, she was left to adjust it herself before settling down to three of the slowest and hushed performances of three Brahms Intermezzi I can remember (these had been programmed to open the recital). The sounds Buniatishvili produced were ravishing, the rapt intimacy held the audience spellbound but for this listener it was a manufactured view more concerned with sound production than emotional content. A bouquet was offered by a member of the audience.

The second half of virtuoso works passed by in a blur of incoherency. Buniatishvili left no room for the opening figure of Chopin’s B flat minor Scherzo to breathe, and while the question-and-answer section of the middle part was heart-rendingly done, the passagework after this and in the repeat building to the return of the first subject was despatched so fast that it was impossible to discern what exactly Chopin had written. It made this reviewer tut involuntarily and audibly. La Valse, again delivered with scarcely credible speed and venom, the big glissandos towards the end tossed off with effortless aplomb, had little narrative sense. The couples had danced their way to destruction long before the final pages. Petrushka was, frankly, a bang fest. Wild applause.

Buniatishvili’s best playing came with the first of her two encores, Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of Handel’s Minuet in G minor HWV 434. Her poise and quiet hands made for a moving few minutes and showed that underneath her untamed temperament lies a real musician with a great gift. She then launched into a crude version of the Precipitato finale of Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata, a silly choice as it replicated the motoric writing of Petrushka. It ended a deeply frustrating and disappointing evening – and I write this as a fervent admirer of Miss Buniatishvili. Someone needs to sit her down and channel her manic delivery into something more musical.

Jeremy Nicholas

New BBC Four documentary on John Ogdon

22 May 2014

© Tully Potter Collection

A documentary on the life of John Ogdon will be broadcast on BBC Four in June.

John Ogdon – Living with Genius examines the turbulent life of one of Britain’s greatest pianists.

The documentary, directed by Zoe Dobson and produced by back2back productions, features footage from the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition which launched Ogdon on to the world stage. Ogdon’s wife, the pianist Brenda Lucas, and their children Richard and Annabel are also interviewed.

After his success in 1962 as the first British finalist to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition (where he was awarded joint first prize with Vladimir Ashkenazy), Ogdon toured and recorded widely, both as a soloist and as a duo with his wife. He had an enviable ability to sight-read and memorise complex scores, and gave many first performances of new works. He was also an accomplished composer.

Ogdon struggled with mental health issues throughout his life. He died 25 years ago in August. The article ‘Remembering John’ in the latest edition of IP (issue 25, May/June 14) explores his piano prowess, in conversation with his biographer Charles Beauclerk.

The documentary is followed by John Ogdon: A Musical Tribute at 8.30pm, a tribute concert performed by pianist Peter Donohoe, which was recorded earlier this year.

John Ogdon – Living with Genius is on BBC Four Friday 6 June 2014, 7.30pm

Martin James Bartlett wins BBC Young Musician 2014

19 May 2014

Martin James Bartlett, 17, has been named the winner of BBC Young Musician 2014.

The final of BBC Young Musician 2014 took place on 18 May at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. The three finalists performed with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits in front of an audience.

Pianist Alice Sara Ott was on the judging panel, alongside composer James MacMillan, conductor Alice Farnham, percussionist Colin Currie and recorder-player Michala Petri.
Martin James Bartlett performed Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The runners up were percussionist Elliott Gaston-Ross (15) and recorder-player Sophie Westbrooke (15).
The finals are available to watch online here


Martin James Bartlett named BBC Young Musician keyboard finalist

13 May 2014

Martin James Bartlett, 17, has won the keyboard category final of BBC Young Musician.

Bartlett, from Hornchurch, Essex, impressed the judging panel – which included pianists Ashley Wass and Noriko Ogawa – with a varied recital. Bartlett gave a controlled performance of Bach’s Partita No 2, Capriccio, followed by the Petrarch Sonnet 104 by Liszt. He closed with a witty rendition of Moszkowski’s Etincelles and the fourth movement from Barber’s Piano Sonata Op 26. The judges praised his programming and Wass observed that Bartlett conveyed a ‘compelling level of musicianship’.

The other finals were Isata Kanneh-Mason (17), Hayley Parkes (18), Ning Hui See (18) and Julian Trevelyan (15).

Bartlett – who also competed in the 2012 instalment of the competition – will participate in the semi finals, broadcast on BBC Four on Saturday 17 May at 7pm. He joins strings category winner, William Dutton (19), percussionist Elliott Gaston-Ross (15), woodwind champion Sophie Westbrooke (15) and the as-yet unknown brass finalist (to be announced 16 May).

The BBC Young Musician 2014 final will take place at Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Sunday 18 May. It will be broadcast the same day on BBC Four at 7pm and on BBC Radio 3 at 7:30pm.

Over 450 entries were received for the contest from musicians aged between 8-18 years old. Former winners and finalists include Benjamin Grosvenor, Stephen Hough, Leon McCawley and Lucy Parham.

The keyboard finals are available to watch online here

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