Thursday, 14 February 2013

Alice Sara Ott: Schumann, Schubert, Mussorgsky (RFH)

It’s taken me a little while to catch up with Alice Sara Ott, who burst onto the London scene, as the publicity material for this latest London appearance reminded us, as a concerto replacement for Lang Lang at a 2010 Barbican concert. On record, she announced herself as a bone fide virtuoso with Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes on DG, with whom she has an exclusive contract. Here’s a snippet of her in ‘Chasse neige’.

This concert was linked to her latest CD, Pictures, and shared the two main works with that disc, recorded in St Petersburg. Schubert’s Sonata D.850 took up the bulk of the first half, Mussorgsky’s marvellous Pictures at an Exhibition the second. Schumann’s funny little Allegro in B minor, op. 8 served as a brief introduction—something of a contrast to Yulianna Avdeeva’s recital last week, with the composer’s first sonata having the second half to itself.

Ott’s approach was different, too, for this slightly non-committal work, which uneasily mixes snatches of the earnest, grand rhetoric of the sonata with the more flippant fluidity of contemporary virtuosic styles—the programme note mentioned Hummel, and there are shades of the Schumann’s own early Abegg variations, too. Ott rattled through it with requisite brilliance, but seemed more relaxed when she sat down for the Schubert, played with astonishing lightness of touch and musical fluency.

But for all the pianistic skill, there was not much of Ott’s own personality on show. Admittedly, the notey-ness (if that’s a permissible musical equivalent to wordiness) of the first movement doesn’t allow much space for personality to come through without distortions, while the Con moto second movement—very much one of Schubert’s late-Beethoven moments—responds well to a more ‘neutral’ approach. Ott gave the Scherzo a glorious lilt, and the finale a wonderful playful lightness. It was a valid, successful interpretative approach, but I couldn’t help wondering how different the piece would have sounded in Avdeeva’s hands. (Here's Ott's account of the piece, in its entirety, from Verbier.)

Ott seemed a different pianist, however, after the interval, in a blistering account of the Pictures. There was barnstorming virtuosity here, but also a wonderful ear for the details and atmosphere of Mussorgsky’s score—in which every vignette carries with it such rich additional cultural meaning that the whole work serves as a perfect riposte to anyone dismissive of ‘merely’ descriptive music. Ott seemed alive to all these layers, treating the work as so much more than the virtuoso showpiece that, say, Ravel’s orchestration reduces it too (Here are the 'Unhatched Chicks', replete with pop-video-style, rubber-duck-based visuals). 

All the weirdness, the jagged eccentricity and the brilliance was impressively communicated, with Ott exploring every extreme of the RFH Steinway's sonic range: the depths of the catacombs, the brilliance of the Ballet, the wonkiness of ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle', the massive sonic bulk of the final ‘Great Gate at Kiev’. The fifth Liszt Paganini Etude provided virtuosity of a more impish kind in a delightful encore.   

Friday, 8 February 2013

Yulianna Avdeeva (QEH); Joyce DiDonato's DramaQueens

First, the standard apologies for what, in this case, has been an extremely long absence from the blogosphere. Various business, and resultant busyness, has kept me away, including a trip to Milan. Anyway, back to London, and to two concerts this week. First was a serious, impressive piano recital by the winner of the 2010 Chopin Piano competition, Yulianna Avdeeva. It was a strong year at the famous Warsaw competition. Daniil Trifonov and Ingolf Wunder, both now with high-profile record deals, were there, as was Evgeny Bozhanov, whose playing I greatly enjoyed at the RFH last year. She saw off them all, much to the chagrin of parts of the Polish press, I gather.

Such a distinction might have helped her to fill more seats in the Queen Elizabeth Hall than was the case on Tuesday. But that competition is some time ago now, and the lack of Chopin on the highly taxing but pleasing programme was therefore, I’d imagine, significant; but her decision to start with Bach’s 34-minute-long French Overture BWV831 might not have drawn in the crowds. As it was, though, she showed herself a forthright, convincing interpreter of Bach on the piano, even if the overture sounded at times a little clompy—less her fault, perhaps, than that of a piano that didn’t seem in tip-top condition. On the whole, though, this was not Bach that sought consolation in pianistic beauty: it was not afraid to be percussive, driven and assertive. There was a fair bit of pearly touch, and Avdeeva can pare her tone down beautifully when she wants, but such effects were employed to provide telling contrast. The passage work was light and delicate when required, too, while the ‘Echo’ was filled with lots of lovely mini-delays.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit held no difficulties for her impressive technique—from the right of the auditorium, with her hands invisible, it was notable how still she remained even in the most taxing passages—but was a little short on half-shades. Again, however, just as soon I began to miss colouristic variety she tended to make a little adjustment one way or another, and the hypnotic concentration of her ‘Le gibet’ was particularly impressive. After the interval she effectively controlled the rhetorical excesses of Schumann’s remarkable Op. 11 Sonata—stormy, forthright, architecturally persuasive and always impeccably musical.

Avdeeva makes her London concerto debut with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski next January, but it’s perhaps understandable that those she beat in the Chopin Competition have overtaken her in winning a larger following, and I idly wondered whether or not audiences have difficulty with so admirably serious an approach coming from a 27-year-old female pianist. Would this playing be perceived differently if it came from the hands of an older male pianist? (Certainly the comments below this clip of her from the competition—she won the Sonata Prize as well—suggest that gender does play a role in the way some people perceive these things). 

Perhaps worth pondering—and Alice Sara Ott’s RFH recital next week will no doubt provide an interesting contrast—but I certainly left Avdeeva’s recital wanting to hear her again as soon as possible.

There was certainly no difficulty for Joyce DiDonato to rustle up a large and enthusiastic audience for her DramaQueens concert on Wednesday at the Barbican Hall. As part of a large tour linked, in the now customary manner, to a CD release, the concert featured a cleverly planned, often brilliantly executed programme, mixing, as the list of composers included suggests, works well-known and obscure. There were arias by Handel, Monteverdi and Hasse, as well as Antonio Cesti, Geminiano Giacomelli, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, Giovanni Porta; the brilliant Il Complesso Barocco gave instrumental interludes in the form of pieces by Handel, Gluck and Vivaldi—in his ‘Per Pisendel’ Concerto, the leader Dmitry Sinkovsky came dangerously close to upstaging La DiDonato and her extravagant Vivenne Westwood frocks.

There were some gems in the programme (Giacomelli’s ‘Sposa, son disprezzata’ from Merope was one in the first half, not least for the heartfelt performance), and DiDonato managed to keep everything sounding fresh. 

I wished, though, that she’d let the voice loose a bit more. It was reined in a little, and there was something of a thrill in ‘Brilla nell’alma’ from Handel’s Alessandro when she let go on a couple of notes. Let’s hope there’s plenty of that too when she and Juan Diego Flórez join forces for the Royal Opera’s La donna del lago later this season (they’ll also be singing together as part of the Peruvian tenor’s Barbican residency in April).