Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete Waltzes
Waltz in E flat major, Op. 18 'Grande Valse Brillante' [5:40]
3 Waltzes, Op. 34 [13:36]
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42 [4:05]
3 Waltzes, Op. 64 [8:38]
2 Waltzes, Op. Post.69 [6:45]
3 Waltzes, Op. Post 70 [6:06]
Waltz in A flat major KK IVa no.13 [1:18]
Waltz in E flat major KK IVb no.10 [1:36]
Waltz in E flat major KK IVa no.14 [2:33]
Waltz in E major KK IVa no.12 [2:14]
Waltz in E minor KK IVa no.15 [2:33]
Waltz in A minor KK IVb no.11 [2:00]
Alice Sara Ott (piano)
rec. August 2008, Teldex Studio, Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8095 [57:00]

With the Complete Waltzes fitting easily onto a single CD, we need not be surprised that more than one pianist has queued up to release them in Chopin’s 200th anniversary year. Ingrid Fliter’s recording on EMI has already been reviewed favourably on these pages and a direct comparison would be logical. Unfortunately, without this alternative to hand I am resorting to Garrick Ohlsson on Hyperion, now available on a separate disc in their low price Helios series, and an earlier EMI recording with Agustin Anievas included in the 200th Anniversary Edition bumper box of 16 CDs - not exactly a level playing field, but all’s fair in commerce.

Alice Sara Ott is clearly someone in whom Deutsche Grammophon is prepared to invest to the full extent of its powers. Given an impressive but rather strangely chosen industrial setting, Ott and DG celebrate not only Chopin’s anniversary year but what might also be the Gdansk shipyards in this release, onto which a grand piano has been placed for a video and photo shoot. Sultry glamour and engineer chic aside, Ott is also clearly a musician who thinks deeply and seriously about her approach to performing, and this comes through in her playing. She plays from the autograph manuscripts for instance, which may not seem particularly relevant, but the effect this can have on musical results is something I’ve heard about before from early music practitioners and other sources. Devotion to Chopin’s intentions in the music, admissions about and dealing with the problems to be found in some of the pieces, consideration of the thoughts and poetic emotions which they express or hold as enigmatic secrets; these are all things which stand behind the mere notes on the page, and are a requirement for truly bringing this music to life.

This Ott does extremely well in my view. Her playing is ‘feminine’; sensitive in a way less apparent in Garrick Ohlsson’s 1995 Hyperion recording. Her repeated notes in the opening Op.18 are a real delight, and the comparison in touch makes Ohlsson’s performance more of a gallop - a romp to which one might imagine abandoned dancing, but portrayed from quite a different viewpoint. This is true of many comparisons in this instance. With Ohlsson I sense a smell of leather and whips, and somewhat overly energetic ladies of a certain type generating heat and excitement on the dance floor and scaring the Beta males into hiding in the orangery. This is not to say he doesn’t have a soft centre, and there are abundant examples of beautiful melodic phrasing and colour contrast, just that with Ott we are being given more an idea of how Chopin might have played, rather than a pianist’s performance of Chopin: “We know he had quite a small sound - he couldn’t play fortissimo, but he had many subtle shades of pianissimo. He was simply a poet.”

Listening to Agustin Anievas and we hear a straighter interpretation than either Otto or Ohlsson. There are plenty of rubato inflections, but Anievas is more inclined to keep a relatively stable underlying waltz tempo going, presenting the expressive points with charming flexibility, but maintaining the origins of the music without over emphasising Chopin’s poetic and emotional side. These differences in approach are all questions of taste, and as long as I sense integrity in the playing I am quite happy to accept diversity in treatment of these waltzes. There is always the danger that a performer will try to squeeze too much from the notes, and this is not the impression I have from Ott’s recording. As with Alfred Cortot, Ott finds a balance between poetic expressiveness and musical clarity, and creates performances frequently commanding attention through gentle restraint. It’s like something Stravinsky said: “in order to be understood clearly, I need to speak quietly”, or words to that effect. This is also not to day that Ott is incapable of creating some stormy pianism and powerful dynamics where appropriate, rather that she errs towards finding as much poetry as possible in the music, This she can do while at the same time avoiding Cortot’s rather coarser earthiness, and still without losing a sense of humane reality.

This is a beautifully recorded disc, and a performance that will appeal to your insightful and literary side. These are ‘romantic’ performances, but thankfully going far further than perfumed superficiality. Stopping short recording these waltzes on Chopin’s old Pleyel piano, this is the kind of playing to which one’s own imagination can easily be cast back with a fair conviction that this is how Chopin would like to hear his pieces played, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Dominy Clements