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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

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