The English remarkable pianist and composer, John (Andrew Howard) Ogdon, attended Manchester Grammar School, before studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music (the predecessor of the Royal Northern College of Music) between 1953 and 1957. His tutor there was Claud Biggs. As a boy he had studied with Iso Elinson and after leaving college, he further studied with Gordon Green, Denis Matthews, Ilona Kabos, Dame Myra Hess, and Egon Petri - the latter in Basle, Switzerland. He began his career while still a student, premiering works by Goehr and Maxwell Davis. Following an acclaimed series of concerts in the north of England, he made his sensational London debut as soloist in 1958, playing Ferruccio Busoni's rarely-heard Piano Concerto under the baton of Sir Henry Wood. In 1960, Ogdon married pianist Brenda Lucas in 1960, and the two often appeared in recital together. He won first prize at the Budapest Liszt Competition in 1961, and consolidated his growing international reputation by winning another first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962, jointly with the young Vladimir Ashkenazy, another rapidly emerging artist.
A hectic career followed, in which John Ogdon played acclaimed concerts and recitals around the world, and recorded extensively. His life and career might be summed up as prodigious. His size was impressive. Tall and with a tendency toward obesity, Ogdon brought power and strength to his performances, with critics often resorting to words like "thunderous" in their assessments. Yet Ogdon was always sensitive to the demands of musical architecture. An affable and approachable artist among his more aloof colleagues, his primary concern was to communicate music's essence through clear delineation of its form. A player of great strength and protean technique, Ogdon was unafraid, and in fact preferred, to tackle the biggest scores, including F. Busoni's mammoth Piano Concerto, L.v. Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, the Concerto for Solo Piano (from the Op. 39 Etudes) of Charles-Valentin Alkan, and the four-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, which he first played in private recital at the age of 22. He also was capable of sensitive intimacy with his repertoire. When he was at the height of his powers, it was his concentration and unrelenting but plastic control that impressed audiences. His repertoire was also massive: more than 80 composers were represented, with literally hundreds of scores. He was able to play most pieces at sight and had committed a huge range of pieces to memory. He enjoyed stretching his vast talents to their limit and attempted such monumental tasks as a complete recording of Sergei Rachmaninov's works for piano, which was released in 2001. He recorded all ten Scriabin sonatas early in his career. In more familiar repertoire, he revealed deep musical sensibilities, always buttressed by a colossal technique. More than 260 works in his playing preserved in recordings.
John Ogdon also studied composition with Richard Hall, Thomas Pittfield, and George Lloyd. He composed nearly 200 works in many forms, including a symphony, piano works, chamber music, a string quartet and a piano concerto. A planned symphony based on the works of Herman Melville and a comic opera were left unfinished.
John Ogdon taught at the Indiana University of Music in Bloomington from 1976 to 1980. He wrote extensively on music, including a number of well-received treatises, including Sorabji and Melville (1960), Liszt's Later Piano Music (1970) and The Romantic Tradition (1972).
John Ogdon's health was never good, and his physical constitution was not strong enough to carry the burden of his enormous talent. A gentle giant, known and loved for his kindness and generosity, he found it hard to say no and was pushed beyond his strength. In 1973, Ogdon suffered a breakdown which, given the pace of his career, might not have been unexpected, but a more serious cause was at the heart of it. Like his father before him, Ogdon was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalised for several years at the Maudley Hospital in London, where he was nevertheless reported to maintain a practice schedule of three hours a day on the hospital's Steinway. In general he needed more nursing than it was possible to provide while touring. In 1980, he made a comeback in the concert hall, but critics found that his technique had suffered from the years of institutionalisation and the medication he took to maintain his inner balance. In 1983, after emerging from hospital, he played at the opening of the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. Still, there were moments of great inspiration when the brilliance of his conceptions overshadowed any diminution of his keyboard powers, and his 1988 recording of K.S. Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum (Altarus) is an astonishing achievement. Shortly after, at the age of 52, he died of pneumonia, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes. His death was mourned by a multitude of friends and admirers.
The BBC made a film about his life titled Virtuoso, based on his biography Virtuoso: The Story of John Ogdon (London, 1981), written by his wife and fellow-pianist, Brenda Lucas Ogdon. John Ogdon was played by Alfred Molina, who won a Best Actor award from the Royal Television Society for his performance.