For Alice Sara Ott playing Mussorgsky's Pictures of an Exhibition is like visiting an old friend. In the liner notes of her new CD called "Pictures", she recalls how she was able to familiarize herself with the work during her student years at the Salzburg Mozarteum. I have heard her perform the Pictures on a couple of occasions in concert and there is no doubt she inhabits Mussorgsky's various tableaux with confidence as well as insight. The current CD was recorded live during the White Night's Festival in St. Petersburg in July 2012, where the sense of occasion was undoubtedly enhanced by the challenge to perform this quintessential Russian work before a Russian audience.
A firm grasp of the work's structure coupled with stylistic assurance allow her to treat Mussorgsky's Pictures as a unified whole, but at the same time vivify the different tableaux with brilliant color and atmosphere, as in the linking Promenade or the Ballet of the unhatched chicks. There is no lack of power and drama either when required, as in the sinister Gnome, the slow-moving Bydlo or the closing Great Gate of Kiev. The Old Castle is in itself a tour de force by the hypnotic left hand. As usual with Ott there is no trace of empty rhetoric or demonstrativeness, which may account in part for some less satisfying sections, like the rather measured and polite Market at Limoges. The Catacombs on the other hand are somewhat too direct and lack mystery. Overall, however, this is a superb achievement, although there is no doubt that a later (or a studio) recording, following more concert practice, might have yielded an even more rounded result.
This seems all the more true for the unusual coupling, Franz Schubert's massive D major Sonata, the so-called "Gasteiner" from 1825. Both works form indeed part of Ott's current concert program, although played in a more logical order than on the CD where the Mussorgsky precedes the Schubert. Ott readily admits there is nothing to link the two compositions, even if it might be argued that they were both well in advance of their time, the Sonata mainly by its inventive rhythmic writing, the Pictures by its harmonies.
Combining excellent passages with less defined ones, the Sonata sounds like a work in progress in this recording. For now Ott's reading comes off as strict, even severe, at times too relentless, with monochrome textures and phrasing that should breath more, especially in the opening Allegro vivace and the Con moto. After all, this is an optimistic and joyful Schubert who composed this Sonata, but Ott seems to think differently. The palpitating rhythms of the Scherzo sound massive and slow rather than energetic while the contrast with the lovely serene Trio turns out less pronounced. The closing Rondo is then again most elegantly done, with the joyful themes succeeding each other with disarming grace as well as simplicity.
I heard Alice Sara Ott play the Schubert D major Sonata about half a year after this recording and her interpretation had evidently deepened already considerably, as to make you wonder why they taped it at such an early stage. Moreover, the dullish, opaque piano sound is definitely not one of DG's best. It's a live document, of course, and judging by the reaction of the Petersburg audience, erupting too soon after the Schubert, well appreciated. But it still makes me hope to hear this program recorded again at some point later in her career.
Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman