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Santa Fe Listener
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ianist Alice Sara Ott, who will turn 25 this year, has one of the rarest opportunities in classical music, having been catapulted into prominence by DG's yellow label - they rarely make mistakes. If there has been a NY debut, it's not recorded in the New York Times archive, so Ott is at once famous and unknown. DG has spread her through a wide repertoire over five albums, beginning with the most difficult Liszt, moving on through the warhorse Tchaikovsky concerto, then to Beethoven sonatas. It's too great a burden for a young artist to bear equally well. Now we get Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which have become almost extinct, thanks to shattering performances on disc from Horowitz and Richter. Was it daring or foolhardy for Ott to travel to St. Petersburg to play this music at Gergiev's White Nights Festival last summer?
Her reading begins a bit unpromisingly with slack rhythms in the opening Promenade and Gnomes, getting no help from recorded sound so heavily weighted to the left hand that the effect is lugubrious. The heavy bass line throughout is inescapable and distracting. Ott has no problem with the technical side of Pictures, but this is music that's so familiar, it needs to catch fire in order not to be inconsequential. A heavy-handed Bydlo feels lumbering, however, and Ott's lack of imagination begins to take its toll - you realize that her goal is to be serious, not colorful or scintillating. The Old Castle has little atmosphere, the Tuileries no sparkle. In addition, she seems content to hover around mezzo forte too much of the time. There are brighter moments, as in the Ballet of the Unhatched chicks, but overall, it's a very literal, eyes straight ahead reading, full of big sounds but not a great deal more to hold one's attention.
Speaking of Richter, he left two recorded concert readings of Schubert's D Major sonata D. 850, one of those occasions where he attacked the music like middle period Beethoven, shattering Schubert's gentle image. The first movement features some tricky tempo changes, hesitations, and interjections. It's not a good sign that Ott simply charges through them at a clip, leveling everything in her path. It was a tactic she tried unsuccessfully in her Beethoven sonata disk. The second movement is also taken at an impatient pace with no pauses or flexibility. The Scherzo is announced grandly, with a nice contrast for the sparkling contrast that immediately follows. But by this point I couldn't escape the impression that Ott had no better intention than to march through every movement without charm, grace, or involvement. The Allegro finale is a funny thing, seemingly prim to the point of mincing, and pianists often struggle to make it sound like anything but an anticlimax. Ott sets a steady pace with few dynamic contrasts, offering nothing to object to but not much to notice, either.
My three stars is out of respect for DG's A and R department. They have dozens of flashy young pianists to choose form, and since Ott did so well with her earlier Liszt and Tchaikovsky albums, there must be something greater here than I can detect.