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Of the many wonderful young pianists who have arrived on the international performing circuit in recent years, Alice Sara Ott impresses me as one of the more honest to her own artistic intentions, and authentic in her delivery.
Her several recordings for Deutsche Grammophon have consistently revealed Ott as an intelligent pianist, eschewing glitz for its own sake, ready and willing to plough her own musical furrow, staying true to her vision and – importantly – to the intentions and spirit of the composers whose music she identifies with.
Commenting on her latest release, Nightfall, the now-30-year-old German pianist writes:
“It’s a very personal album in which I recall many moments of light and brightness, but also moments of darkness and doubt. One month before I entered the recording studio – I was in the midst of the bleak world of Gaspard de la nuit – my father suffered a heart attack that he barely survived. Despite a fortunate outcome, these were terrifying hours and days in which I realised how close life and death are intertwined. But there can be no light without darkness, and no hope without fear. And sometimes the borders blur – as in Nightfall.”
“Nightfall. It’s that magical hour when day and night face each other and the sky descends into twilight. For a brief moment, light and darkness are in harmony and merge together.”
In search of music to convey these thoughts, Alice Sara Ott selects popular works by three composers who lived, worked and died in Paris around a century ago: Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Erik Satie (1866-1925) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). These composers were certainly masters of light and dark, not only through the impressions of their music, but in their broader cultural and supra-artistic interests and influences.
From their rich and hugely important repertoire, Ott selects her programme as follows:
• Suite Bergamasque
• Gnossienne No.1
• Gymnopédie No.1
• Gnossienne No.3
• Gaspard de la Nuit
• Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte
This selection is, in my view anyway, a genius one. Not only do these works combine to produce a mosaic of light and shade that brilliantly encapsulates the concept of the album, but they also provide listeners with a fabulous introduction to some of the most gorgeous works of all three composers, making this album a very strong recommendation for students and music enthusiasts who are exploring the French piano school for the first time.
Alice Sara Ott’s Debussy is delightfully unaffected.
The opening Rêverie provides a simple and quite beautiful start to the musical journey ahead – Ott neither over-indulges nor underestimates the expressive potential in Debussy’s score here, but brings clarity to the texture and phrase shaping that is exquisite.
Following the glowing F major of the Rêverie, the expansive opening chords which announce the Prélude from the Suite Bergamasque – written in the same key – flow seamlessly, transporting us to the glimmering world that these four movements convey. Once again, the pianist enjoys the many fine details of texture and timbre latent in the score without losing herself (or the listener) in them. Her playing of the Menuet and closing Passepied are perhaps more muscular than some interpretations, while the evergreen Clair de Lune is conveyed with simple charm and perfect expressive flexibility.
Ott has a somewhat freer approach to Satie’s well-worn miniatures, employing agogic accents and rubato to good effect, demanding we listen to this music anew. The composer once wrote that these pieces can be performed in any order of the performer’s choosing, and I found it particularly effective to hear them organised as here, with one of the 3/4 Gymnopédies sandwiched between the essentially 4/4 (but barless) Gnossiennes.
Ravel’s monumental Gaspard de la Nuit is in some respects the odd piece out here – a work strictly off-limits to all but the most virtuoso players. I wondered how it would fare in the context of music which is regularly played by amateur and student pianists, and whether it might seem out-of-place. Happily, in Ott’s hands (and with excellent engineering throughout) the glistening opening of Ondine emerges was a subtle evolution rather than a bombastic intervention. Once again, the pianist brings supreme clarity to the often dense writing, allowing the listener to enjoy every detail and marvel in Ravel’s mixture of opulence and economy.
Following the astonishing climax of the first movement, Ott is no less effective in her execution of Le Gibet, the terrors of this extraordinary piece no doubt alive to her from her recent familial experiences. And Scarbo is delivered with both panache and venom.
The inclusion of the gorgeous Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte proves an equally inspired and effective piece of programming, bringing this fabulous disk to a settled close. Here, as in the opening Debussy works, Alice Sara Ott plays with refined restraint, allowing this most lovely of melodies to speak clearly for itself.
Nightfall is available now on all major streaming services, but why not support the artist by buying the CD itself? Those who do so are treated to a superbly packaged product – the standard CD jewel case enshrouded in an outer cardboard sleeve which – in keeping with current marketing – focuses on the artist and album concept rather than the works included.
The generous booklet within includes an excellently written article by the pianist herself, exploring the works with insight, while placing the programme within her own artistic and personal journey. It is a model of good and accessible writing, and appears in English and French translations as well as in her original German.
The booklet also includes Aloysius Bertrand’s verses for Gaspard de la Nuit and Paul Verlain’s Clair de Lune – again in all three languages – which is a particularly welcome touch, adding further insight and depth for the listener.
The piano (unfortunately not identified) has been wonderfully recorded (in Berlin, Meistersaal, 3/2018) and mastered by Rainer Maillard, with Sid McLachlan credited as producer, all overseen by executive producer Angelika Meissner.
There is a warmth and clarity to the tone here which deserves five stars, and is as good as any I have heard.
Nightfall is a towering achievement, a recording which I must already regard as indispensable, and among my favourite interpretations of these works. For the young Alice Sara Ott to achieve so much in this music, and in the shadow of so many former benchmark recordings, is extraordinary.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this album to piano aficionados and newcomers alike.
The former will hopefully agree that the programming, interpretations and execution here are all exemplary, while the latter will hopefully discover a love for this music which will last a lifetime.
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