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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [34:51]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in D major Op. 53, D 850 (1825) [37:37]
Alice Sara Ott (piano)
rec. live, July 2012, The Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, St. Petersburg
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 0088 [72:29]

This is Alice Sara Ott ‘On Russian Soil – live at the White Nights Festival’, with no information about the music and everything about Ott and the concert. She seeks to be understood: “… that I send feelings into the audience and receive feelings back – it’s all communication.” These may seem affected comments, but until you’ve been on stage and had those experiences it would be wrong to discount them. With the freedom of ideal conditions “I was really able to express what I felt at that moment … it’s very liberating.” These are all very promising vibes, and the initial impressions from this recording are pretty good.
There are innumerable versions of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition around, and of the piano performances that of Vladimir Ashkenazy together with his conducting of the Philharmonia Orchestra in its orchestral version on Decca has always been a colourful reference. I also grew up with one of the very earliest BIS releases, Janos Solyom on BIS-LP-16, which might have been a bit heavy in terms of touch but always delivered in terms of drama. Classics from the likes of Sviatoslav Richter shouldn’t be ignored, though this particular example shows its age in terms of recording quality. Deutsche Grammophon’s own catalogue has Ivo Pogorelich as something of a standard-bearer, but while deeply expressive his performance has as much ‘Pogorelich’ in it as it does Mussorgsky which is something I can take or leave, but would personally sooner leave if it comes to a definitive library choice.
Alice Sara Ott opens with a nicely paced Promenade, not so swift that you feel you are being swept along with a crowd of American tourists, but without undue pomposity. The dramatic darkness of Gnomus is portrayed with plenty of narrative power – menace and shock all well in evidence. Ott’s lyrical touch in The Old Castle has nice character, and a timeless feel without a lingering tempo. The Tuileries has the playfulness required by the subtitle, but isn’t vapid or entirely innocent – you have the feeling you wouldn’t let your child play with this group unobserved. The pesante of Bydlo is a bold extreme which provides maximum contrast with the initially tranquil Promenade which follows. The Ballet of the unhatched chicks is suitably mad, and the Two Jews are genuinely soulful. The Market at Limoges bustles with tremendous energy, and after such a lively transaction the Catacombs cast us into terminal dread and infinite Lisztian darkness. This is accompanied by the chill language With the Dead, from which we emerge into a ray of major-key warmth before the great Baba-Yaga. Ott pushes the piano to its limits here, creating a remarkable climax and retrospective structure to the whole piece. The final Heroic Gate has fine architectural pacing, saving just enough for a massive conclusion.
There are several things I like about Ott’s Pictures: that sense of a connected cycle, the relevance of each movement to the next, the character of Mussorgsky’s sometimes nightmarish visions superbly expressed, these are all marvellous aspects of a piece which is also a technical tour-de-force which you wouldn’t expect the slim thing in the photos for this release to be able to produce. Deliver she does however, and while I have no doubt there will be dissenting voices around I have to admit to being pretty stunned by this live performance. You may want to hang onto your collection of old favourites, but if Mussorgsky’s masterpiece is one of your favourites you owe it to yourself to hear this one.
Having been through this marathon experience Schubert has a hard act to follow, but if anyone can do it, Schubert can. Ott opens the Piano Sonata in D major Op. 53, D 850 with a fiery passion which meets Mussorgsky head-on and does the elder composer proud. If you are used to studio performances, this live event, aimed at communicating with a large audience, may come across as a bit OTT, but shifting our perspectives in this way can be an education. Listening back to Alfred Brendel’s live sound is a reminder of how projecting need not all be tumult, and Ott’s opening Allegro vivace might have had a little more contrast in this regard. This feeling of the piano not quite being allowed to ‘sing’ carries through to the Con moto second movement, which might have had some more air around the notes or phrases. Ott impresses once again with the imposing Scherzo, though by introducing explorative ritenuti this becomes something of a caricature – or perhaps it is meant to be a character-piece, though we don’t know of what or whom. The final Rondo is something which should raise a smile, and we almost make it here, though the melodic line is just a bit to studied to release maximum charm.
It’s easier to be critical of this live Schubert performance, and while it wouldn’t be my first choice it is full of dynamism, as well as Ott’s tremendous technique and some moments of sublime musicianship. When it comes to live performances you have to take the rough(er) with the smooth, and with plenty of individuality and lively energy this is still very much a D 850 with something to offer.
As live performances there are a few distant audience noises but nothing too distracting, and each work is concluded with enthusiastic applause. The recording is reasonably decent if not studio perfect – you get used to the mild lower-middle emphasis quite quickly, though it will depend on your system if you can get the best out of it. My cheaper speakers made me start all over again in evaluating the sound, bringing out its woolliness where my top of the range headphones had previously allowed me to accept everything with equanimity.
Dominy Clements