BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: Nos. 3, 21. Andante favori. Rage Over a Lost Penny • Alice Sara Ott (pn) • DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4779291 (65:39)
As I’ve said many times in my reviews, you simply cannot judge a CD by its cover, especially when the performer is a woman. That is because the record companies, particularly DG, seem to go out of their way to glamorize the women—regardless of their own proclivity, appearance, or lifestyle—in outfits that resemble the worst excesses of Hollywood on Oscar night.Read more This CD, however, is exactly the opposite. On its cover, young Alice Sara Ott, all of 23 years old and looking even younger (I guessed she was a 19-year-old conservatory student they photographed during a rehearsal break), is sitting cross-legged on her piano stool, unsmiling, dressed in a black sweatshirt and what appears to be nylon slacks. She looks the exact opposite of the gussied-up glamour girl.
Ah, but DG couldn’t completely resist the glamour treatment. On the back cover of the booklet we see their attempt. Her long hair combed down over the front of her shoulders, Ott is sitting on a white windowsill in an all-white room, dressed in a floor-length light mauve strapless dress, holding a score with Beethoven’s name on it between two fingers of her right hand. But here’s the funny part: If you look at her face and into her eyes, you still see the preppy-looking conservatory student. Her attitude seems to be, “OK, take the picture. Are we done now?”
Which is exactly the kind of attitude I like in a young artist. Ott is obsessed with music, not a glamour image, and that is all to the good. In fact, the highest compliment I can pay her is that her playing resembles that of Daria Gloukhova, whom I consider to be the greatest living female concert pianist. Here, as in Gloukhova’s playing, is that wonderful yet curious combination of impetuosity and elegance, a similar way of springing the rhythms yet knowing when and how to hold back on certain phrases to create interest and tension. Listen to her performance of the Sonata No. 3, and you’ll swear that you’re listening to Artur Schnabel in digital stereo. Ott employs the same startling contrasts of volume—written into the score—that Schnabel does, but hardly any other pianist since him, but she also phrases a little differently, which makes her interpretation unique. (I once had an argument with a leading pianist who was recording the complete Beethoven sonatas that he played the early sonatas too delicately. He contended that since Beethoven was using a fortepiano he couldn’t produce such contrasts. I argued that, like it or not, Beethoven probably did produce such contrasts, even on a fortepiano, or he wouldn’t have put those dynamic markings into the score.) This performance has sweep and drama, which are exactly what is needed in early Beethoven.
Ott’s performance in the first movement of the “Waldstein” Sonata (No. 21) is not quite at the speed I like—I prefer Walter Gieseking’s 1939 recording and Craig Sheppard’s version, both of which are a little faster—yet she manages to find interesting interstices in the music, places where just a slight hesitation or a touch of rubato bring an entirely new meaning to those phrases. Her playing of the second movement has the same sort of delicate, floating sound as Gieseking, and her transition into the third movement—though, again, slower—has the same sense of mystery. To put it bluntly, Ott is a pianist who knows her stuff, and she is not going to carbon-copy anyone else’s interpretation.
Her playing of the early Andante favori has a lovely delicacy in the soft passages, and rhythmic spring in the energetic ones, that I can’t quite recall hearing in any other pianist’s version. I must confess not knowing the Rage Over a Lost Penny before hearing this recording, but Ott plays it with the same kind of energy and forward impetus that she displays in the early Sonata No. 3.
This is a heck of an introduction to Ott’s Beethoven playing. I wouldn’t be the least bit upset if DG chose to record the complete sonatas with her.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
After greatly appreciating Alice Sara Ott’s Chopin
Waltzes it didn’t take much persuading for me to dive into some choice Beethoven – works which Ott has been living and working with for the last 10 years. This is no guarantee of anything of course, but length of study and thoughtful consideration are aspects of a performance from which Beethoven no doubt benefits, and these are certainly well considered performances.
Less dramatic than Andras Schiff on his live ECM 1940/41 recording and a tad less sprightly than Alfred Brendel, Ott’s first movement of the
Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 still has plenty of zip and a wide dynamic impact. Unlike the gents, she seems keen to keep just that bit extra in reserve, not forcing the sound but building tremendous sonority in some of those pedalled sequences. There is a good sense of contrast and variety of colour, though those theatrical octaves into the sixth minute could have been a bit more intense. The second movement
Adagio is always a bit special, though Ott doesn’t go in for quite as much lingering profundity as Bendel. She does create a superb atmosphere however, quietly building the movement as a whole rather than picking over each magical fragment. I actually prefer her flow and momentum in this movement, as it certainly works better in the central development section. The
Scherzo is full of light and joy, as well as nicely pointing out the distinctive lines of counterpoint Beethoven throws around. She is less wild than Brendel in the
Allegro section, allowing the arpeggio notes to tell a little more effectively and gaining more drama from the harmonies than from the spectacle of greater sparkle. There are fireworks in the final
Allegro assai, but Ott doesn’t really spike the dynamic rise and fall to quite the same effect as Louis Lortie on the Chandos label, who arguably goes a little too far to the other extreme in some of his micro-phrasing of the main theme. Ott does have a good ear for detail however, and she catches Beethoven’s youthful exuberance in fine style.
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major op. 53 may share the same key as the first sonata in this programme, but is almost entirely different in character. From the period in which Beethoven was just beginning to confront his encroaching deafness, this later work “creates the impression of a tempest” in the first movement. Ott’s description doesn’t quite fit her playing, which is striking and full of character but more gentle than Lortie for instance. This is one of those movements where Alfred Brendel’s ability to shade and give depth has its distinct advantages, but Ott’s lightness of touch also gives a sense of clarity in passages which are more familiar as piano ‘noise’ rather than moments where detail can have its own strengths. I like Andras Schiff in this piece – ECM 1945/46, and the enigmatic opening of the middle movement is a moment of the deepest repose, and almost silent contemplation in his hands. Ott does play this opening more as a transition towards the entry of more recognisable thematic developments within the movement, where Schiff continues to milk that sense of mystery throughout the movement, reserving the real sense of relief for the bounteous gift of the final
Rondo. Ott is really beautiful in the opening of this movement, following Beethoven’s pedalling instructions to lesser extremes than Schiff’s literal approach, but with an evenness of touch and softness of colour creating a lovely atmosphere. Her blistering technique carries us into the meat of the movement, exploring the sonorities of the piano through Beethoven’s bell like moments, and creating fantastic lines in the air with her superbly elegant passagework. There’s a minor flub in the left hand octave at 6:26, and these could have been a little firmer, but minor and picky points aside this is a performance with great variety and very many attractions.
Andante favori was a movement originally intended for the
Sonata No. 21, so its inclusion here is logical and sensible. Ott brings out the lyrical charm of the themes in the piece to great effect, creating different worlds with the variations in a similar way to the final movement of the previous sonata. I prefer her firmer weighting of the accompanying harmonies to Schiff’s sometimes rather indistinct inner voicing, and she has a playful almost music-hall character in several sections which raise a smile where one might not have been expected. The
Rondo a capriccio in G major is a nice filler, accompanying the
Sonata No. 3 as a piece from the same period, but making for a fun encore rather than anything else.
This is a very fine Beethoven recording with the piano up close, but with a warm tone and a nice acoustic to create a nice feeling of generosity in the sound. Alice Sara Ott’s playing can certainly stand up to close scrutiny, and her performances can also stand up to comparison with big names in this repertoire. I don’t really have a ‘good-better-best’ ranking for these pieces, and admire qualities in all the players and others besides. The name Gilels has popped up in comparison to Ott, and there are indeed moments of transparent insight where the music seems to float in similar ways. Ott fans will love this disc, and with some nicely demure photos inside it’s the kind of release which might hopefully popularise this music to wider audiences. This CD may or may not change hardened opinions out in classical music appreciation land, but I’d be glad to recommend it to anyone dipping their toes for the first time, and to seasoned and charmless cynics alike.
– Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International Read less
Talented Pianist, Excellent PerformanceAugust 26, 2014By Maurice S. (Columbia, SC)See All My Reviews"This album is my first exposure to Alice Sara Ott and I was very impressed with her rendition of Beethoven pieces on the piano. Solid recording, will keep her on my radar for future/other releases. Definitely recommend."Report Abuse