Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 21 [35:00]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Concerto No. 1 in E flat major S.124 [19:47]
Alice Sara Ott (piano)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Thomas Hengelbrock
rec. live, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, November 2009 (Tchaikovsky); Emil Berliner Studios, no date supplied (Liszt). Stereo. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8779 [54:47]
 
Alice Sara Ott puts in some solid performances on this, her concerto début album. The success – artistic I mean, although I suspect commercial too – of her previous all-Liszt release, makes the choice of his First Concerto a sensible one. She is not known for her Tchaikovsky though, nor indeed for any Russian repertoire. But then, Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto is a work that can make almost any pianist sound good, so perhaps that one shouldn't be too much of a surprise either. The two works make a strange combination though. They are at the opposite ends of the Romantic spectrum, Tchaikovsky the traditionalist and Liszt the radical. The comparison between them does Tchaikovsky no favours, and the rigid classical structuring of his concerto seems all the more blinkered and pedantic for the comparison with Liszt's radical, almost narrative, forms.
 
I wouldn't call Ott a radical, although her readings of these two works are certainly distinctive. There is more rubato in the Tchaikovsky than I'm used to, but it is all very localised, confined to the level of the phrases so never interfering with the underlying tempi. Her greatest asset is the sheer beauty of her passage work. The quieter sections of the Tchaikovsky in particular come to life thanks to that subtle rubato and an exceptional clarity of touch, which allows each note to sing yet creates coherency in every phrase. In the Liszt too she really excels in the quieter passages. Like the composer himself, she seems uneasy with the concertante arrangement, as if she would rather be playing the work on her own. Or perhaps it is the fault of the composer that the orchestra often seems like more of a distraction than a support.
 
The one aspect of these recordings that let them down is the balance between the pianist and the orchestra in the tuttis. Is this an engineering problem, or is Ott just not playing loud enough? I'm trying hard not to be swayed by the image of her waif-like frame on the cover. In fact, I know very well that she is able to deliver some punch when needed from the many dramatic episodes in her recent disc of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, which is as butch an interpretation as you could want. Having said that, she doesn't relish the tuttis here in the same way as she does the quieter passages. The bombast of the opening to Tchaikovsky's Concerto is a far remove from her natural artistic temperament. All the same, just placing her microphones a little further inside the lid would probably have made all the difference.
 
The orchestral playing is good and, with the possible exception of these balance issues between soloist and orchestra, the sound quality is very good too. On the whole, the orchestra, or the conductor rather, refrains from following Ott's rubato indulgences. That makes for quite a traditional relationship between soloist and orchestra, with the latter keeping time rather then fully collaborating in the interpretation. That said, the horn-playing in the Tchaikovsky is worthy of mention, and the string sound throughout is silky smooth and impressively unified.
 
A promising concerto début then, but one that also suggests that this pianist is likely to do her best work in the recital hall. The sheer clarity of her articulation and the emotional logic of her phrasing speak of artistic skills well in advance of her age. So where can she go from here? I'd love to hear more Liszt from her, but she is probably far too adventurous to stick with him for too long. Schumann's Concerto would be a great vehicle, as would Tchaikovsky's Second. She should probably give Beethoven a wide berth though. The 19th century repertoire already has legions of great pianists championing its cause, but nobody else sounds quite like this.
 
Gavin Dixon
 
Nobody else sounds quite like this.