Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Liszt 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante Alice Sara Ott

Franz LISZT: 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139
Alice Sara Ott - piano
Recorded Friedrich-Ebert-Halle Harburg, Hamburg, June 2008 Stereo DDD
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8362 [66:09]

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I can’t help the feeling the Deutsche Grammaphon have been keeping their young new signing Alice Sara Ott from us. For reasons best known to themselves, the label released this, her debut disc, in a number of countries in 2008, but held back in the UK until she had a second recording under her belt - of Chopin waltzes (DGG 00289 477 8095). The double-whammy debut approach seems to have backfired a little, with many critics finding the Chopin too dry and emotionless and then projecting those criticisms, albeit in a milder form, onto the Liszt.

But whatever the machinations by which this CD has reached us, it is a remarkable debut. Let’s not forget that the idea of a young pianist debuting on DG at all is a fairly recent innovation; it wasn’t long ago that their roster was made up exclusively of senior figures of piano royalty. And this newfound spirit of innovation stretches to the repertoire too. Most pianists’ debut discs consist of a mixed programme, where the major work is almost invariably Rachmaninov. Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes are a daring choice from a number of perspectives. In terms of technical difficulty, they trump pretty much anything by Rachmaninov. They also call for more interpretive input from the pianist, more poetry, more...well, in a word, transcendence.

Listening to the disc, I can understand why some have found Ott’s Chopin wanting. Her technical skill is mind-blowing, and it is clear that control is a fundamental dimension to her pianistic persona. Her fingers are always in the right place at the right time, and her touch is both evenly graduated and crystal clear. Personally, I consider all these attributes to be sterling pianistic virtues, but I can understand how Chopin could sound sterile to some ears when played like this.

Liszt, of course, is a different story. His poetry is more intrinsic, more integral to his virtuosic demands. In fact, the Transcendental Etudes are a very sensible choice for introducing a pianist to the world stage as they amount to a compendium of the moods, textures and styles current in the early history of the modern piano. Surprisingly, perhaps, given her delicate frame, Ott excels in the louder, heavier movements, the Preludio no.1, for example, and Mazeppa no.4. There is a sheer physical force behind her playing in these movements, which when combined with her technical precision make for an aurally arresting effect. And her confidence belies her age (she was 18/19 when this was recorded), holding back in the build-up to the main Mazeppa theme in a way that speaks of a deep trust in her own musical instincts. She has an elegant legato, even in chronically note-heavy passages such as in the opening of Feux follets, where she finds a lightness that few of her seniors could match.

The control that makes the dramatic passages work can turn into undue restraint in the quieter ones. No. 3 Paysage has all the clarity and translucence of its more rowdy neighbours, but the precision of the phrasing and dynamic shaping make the result a little foursquare. And again with the 9th Ricordanza, it’s evenly arpeggiated opening chords speak of immaculate precision, but also of a reluctance to let go and allow the music to sing.

The last etude Chasse-neige is the exception among the quieter numbers. The clarity with which the legato melody is articulated across the top of the complex accompaniment is ideal. It is a great way to close both the set and the recording. Liszt balances his technical and lyrical demands in a way that elegantly culminates a set that has veered between the two. And that middle ground between the dramatic and the intimate is exactly where Ott excels, her even touch, precisely graduated dynamics and fluid legato, all supported by some real muscle in the left hand bass. As I mentioned, her second disc has met with mixed reviews, but her third is going to include Liszt’s 1st Concerto, and if she plays it like this, it could be something really special.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

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