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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Réverie [4.45]
Suite Bergamasque [17.28]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Gnossienne No. 1 [4.18]
Gymnopédie No. 1 [3.25]
Gnossienne No. 3 [2.56]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la Nuit [26.24]
Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte [6.54]
Alice Sara Ott (piano)
rec. 2018, Meistersaal, Berlin

Alice Sara Ott’s latest recording is entitled Nightfall, which she describes as “that magical hour when day and night face each other”. Many of the works she has chosen to perform certainly contain elements of light and dark. Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and the Satie miniatures are among the most popular Classical works ever written, so Ott clearly has an eye to popular tastes.

Ott opens well with Debussy’s Réverie which the composer wrote in 1890. She creates a glowing impressionistic wash of sound and evokes a calm atmosphere. The composer started work on his Suite Bergamasque in the same year as Réverie but he reworked it several times and it was not published until 1905. Ott captures the festive elements of the opening Prelude and brings out the striking dynamic contrasts. However, the performance is overly Romantic and it lacks Gallic sophistication. ‘Menuet’ has charm and is well executed but I would have liked to hear more of the playful, capricious elements in the music. The famous ‘Clair de Lune’ is simple and elegant, and Ott produces some highly expressive and lyrical playing which is quite lovely. The bouncing left-hand quavers in the final ‘Passepied’ are a little heavy and Ott could perhaps have given us more colour changes in this movement.

Ott has a prodigious technique, so I was intrigued how she would approach Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit which she describes in her programme notes as “one of the greatest challenges in the piano repertoire”. The right-hand piano ostinato at the start of ‘Ondine’ is a little loud and not as skilfully executed as it might be (Joseph Moog’s recent performance suffers for similar reasons). Ott’s ‘Ondine’ somehow lacks the dangerous shimmering seductive allure that this movement needs. Her performance of ‘Le Gibet’ is exceptionally slow – about 2-3 minutes slower than the usual performance speed. She evokes feelings of heaviness and dread and the desolate scene depicted in Aloysius Bertrand’s poem (on which the music is based) although the tempo drags a little too much. Ott succeeds in achieving an extraordinary degree of crystalline clarity in her performance of ‘Scarbo’ and the climax points erupt with volcanic power. While playing with this degree of clarity is admirable it occasionally detracts from the dangerous diabolism in the score (an example of this is the opening sequence of repeated notes which sound very matter of fact).

Ott also treats us to a selection of Satie’s most famous piano miniatures. She conjures a rich sonorous tone from her Steinway in the opening Gnossienne and does an excellent job heightening and releasing the tension. The first Gymnopédie flows in an elegant, mellifluous way while the third Gnossienne is gorgeous.

Overall, this is a disappointing recording and Ott’s performance of the Suite Bergamasque and Gaspard de la Nuit are not in the premier league. Ott’s interpretation of Gaspard is highly unusual and she has clearly taken some risks with the music. I applaud performers trying to come up with new and innovative approaches to established repertoire but in this particular case I am afraid that Ott’s approach does not work.

Robert Beattie

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