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.   

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