French Piano Music

Author: 
Lionel Salter

French Piano Music

  • Sonata for Piano
  • (2) Mirages
  • Sonata for Piano

When John Ogdon made these recordings in 1972 he was breaking more or less new ground: there had been only one previous recording of the Dukas Sonata, and none of the other two works. In fact, there are still no alternatives to his Schmitt Mirages – which is surprising in view of the challenge they offer to virtuoso pianists. The first, written in 1920 and published in memory of Debussy, is a haunting, elaborately textured elegy; the second, a ferocious rendering of the story of Mazeppa’s tragic ride, was dedicated to Cortot. One wonders whether he would ever have had the technique to play it: Ogdon, however, revels in its enormous demands. His fluency and limpid clarity are to be admired, too, in the Dutilleux Sonata, whose spiky first movement veers from fragile delicacy to pounding fortissimo chords; its slow movement (headed “Lied”) is deeply moving in its intensity; and rather more diatonicism marks the final massive chorale, with its brilliant ensuing variations. Since Ogdon’s recording there has been another by Genevieve Joy, who gave the premiere of the work back in 1947: both are equally excellent.
The main work here, however, is the big Dukas Sonata, written at the turn of the century, and advanced for its time. It has always been hailed by French critics as a masterpiece, but despite that it is not often performed, at least in this country. There have been more recent recordings, by Jean Hubeau, whose performance, though he was a pupil of Dukas himself, strikes me as rather limp, and by the talented and musicianly Margaret Fingerhut; but Ogdon brings greater power to the climactic passages and makes its drama more vivid. The sonata’s Franckian harmonic and melodic traits are combined with a pianistic exuberance which suits his temperament admirably, as does the demonic Scherzo, but this is balanced by his air of mystery in its trio section and by Ogdon’s tonal purity in the quiet slow movement. This exceptionally generously filled disc brings home to us how outstanding a pianist we lost in John Ogdon.'

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