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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Piano Sonata #3, Op. 2 #3
  • Piano Sonata #21 "Waldstein", Op. 53
  • Andante favori, WoO 57
  • Rondo a capriccio, Op. 129
Alice Sara Ott, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 4779291 DDD
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Alice Sara Ott almost apologizes for documenting her encounter with Beethoven at an early point in her career. Indeed, she was only 22 at the time of this recording, although, as she continues in the liner notes of this CD, she had been studying and working on the two C major sonatas paired here for some ten years already. In any case, the result is nothing to make apologies for and her Beethoven debut on disc constitutes a welcome addition to the beginning catalog of this remarkable young pianist.

Previous discs as well as several concerts I attended last year revealed Alice Sara Ott as a particularly insightful artist, armed not only with an enviable technique but above all a keen sense of style and a straightforward approach, devoid of excesses and showiness. In Beethoven's Op. 2 #3 Sonata, youthful enthusiasm is always kept in check by a good deal of cool. Ott never forces the issue. There is plenty of drive to push the Allegro con brio forward, but thankfully no trace of this imagined agitation or angst that some already want to inflict on early Beethoven. Instead one admires the light touch, the luminous textures, the structural clarity and, lest we forget, the sheer joy of playing. If you think the early Beethoven sonatas should be all about Stürm und Drang, or some visionary prefiguration of his later works, then you undoubtedly won't like Ott's rendition. But if you prefer Beethoven to acknowledge, with a wink, his debt to Haydn (who was after all the dedicatee of this C major sonata), then you will find plenty to enjoy here. In Ott's hands the adagio sounds beautifully atmospheric, delicate, but also played with a nice flow and sans the unnecessary lingering that tries to unearth what's not there. The scherzo is lively and colorful without any sign of aggressiveness. She finds plenty of exuberance in the final Allegro assai even with the dynamic contrasts underexposed.

This strong link with the classical period is still characterizing Ott's performance of the "Waldstein" Sonata, although the intent of this work was evidently different from the previous C major, written eight years earlier. Again, one admires the natural pacing, the precision of touch, the layering of voices and the refusal to overemphasize contrasts. Although Ott is fully aware of the inherent drama of this sonata, reflecting Beethoven's state of mind darkened by his progressing loss of hearing, the disturbance expressed in the Allegro con brio never gives way to brusqueness or brutality. The Adagio molto is by contrast a moment of serenity rather than mystery, while the Rondo is, as its natural conclusion, above all a quest for luminosity, with Beethoven's liquid sonority handled with imagination as well as panache.

Similar qualities can be heard in the "Andante favori" in F major, originally intended as the second movement for the "Waldstein" Sonata. The final bonus, the "Rondo a capriccio" in G Major, the so-called "Rage over a lost penny", contemporary with the Op. 2 #3 Sonata, is given a sparkling, witty reading and could make a perfect encore in a recital, as it is here to close this disc.

As said, Alice Sara Ott, needn't apologize for her first Beethoven effort on disc. Warmly recorded, with a pleasing ambiance, it is a commendable achievement. The Beethoven piano sonatas are not limited territory for old men, and while later in her career Ott may develop differing views, right now she basically lets the music speak for itself. And that proves in the end agreeably refreshing.

Copyright © 2012, Marc Haegeman