I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Total Liszt

Franz Liszt:
Sposalizio, S161/1 (orch. Salvatore Sciarrino)
Totentanz, S126
A Faust Symphony, S108

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Brenden Gunnell, tenor
Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey, chorus director
London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano
Barbican Hall, London, 26 November 2017

Come to think of it, concerts devoted to a single composer – jubilees and special anniversaries notwithstanding – are quite unusual. The well-considered “Total Liszt” program from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano gave ample proof that evenings like this do work and make perfect sense. “Total Liszt” put the Hungarian composer in a propitious light, offering variety, a discovery, but above all outstanding music-making and plenty of thrills.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

The discovery came in the shape of Sposalizio, originally the sublime opening part of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Second Year: Italy for solo piano, yet here in a 2015 orchestration by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (1947-). By using a modernist, sophisticated instrumentation (including bells and glockenspiel), Sciarrino pulls the work resolutely towards himself, yet the result is that the graceful evocation of the Marriage of the Virgin, as Liszt saw it in Raphael’s painting in Milan, ends up somewhere in modern-day Cinema Paradiso. Plenty of attention-grabbing sonic effects (piccolo and bass clarinet joining forces), with some weird pauses thrown in, and you were listening to the sound rather than the content. Although intently and lovingly performed by Pappano and the LSO, Sposalizio in Sciarrino-style was something of an oddity.

The following Totentanz grabbed the attention as well, but for very different reasons. Liszt’s fascination with death and the diabolical, partly fueled by his traveling and interest in arts, never found a more frightening expression as in this short work for piano and orchestra, adroitly variegating the Dies irae theme, as well as pushing the limits of harmony and piano technique. The Totentanz was given a knockout performance by pianist Alice Sara Ott. Appearing in a black gown, as if dressed for an infernal ball, she left little doubt she wanted to have a great time. And so did we.

The Totentanz has been in Ott’s repertory for some years and it’s clear she knows how to bring it with devastating impact. Her innate classical poise prevents her from pushing the piece over the edge, yet it’s exactly this flirting with the abyss which makes the Totentanz such an exciting ride. Alternately burning and melting the piano, she delivered the ferocious runs (including these jaw-dropping glissandos) with breathtaking speed, articulation and clarity, while the reflective moment in the fourth variation acquired a mesmerizing beauty in her hands. This was death equally creepy as well as beguiling. A close connection with Pappano and the LSO in great form added to the overall excitement and success. Alice Sara Ott received a thunderous applause and returned with a contrasting encore, the C-sharp minor Nocturne from Chopin in a ravishing gossamer delivery.

As rarely performed in the concert-hall as the Totentanz is the Faust Symphony in its complete 1857 version, including the finale with tenor solo and male-voice choir. Antonio Pappano offered overall a fine, often very beautiful, if eventually not entirely convincing reading of the Faust Symphony. Focused, attentive to every detail, coherently shaped and without a single drop in tension, the first two movements stood out: Faust appeared as a wild, edgy and volatile character, while Gretchen breathed tenderness and innocence to delight. Mephistopheles however would have benefited from more abandon and profounder work on the instrumental color. Perhaps it was the onslaught of the preceding Totentanz still fresh in mind, or simply the emphasis of the first movement which made Mephistopheles sound somewhat underwhelming. But in any case the contrast between the outer movements was too little pronounced, with Faust appearing as vivid and unsettling as his diabolic reflection. The “Chorus mysticus” finale, adding a spiritual dimension to the human conflicts evoked in the symphony, was however properly grand and powerful, with splendid vocal contributions from the American tenor Brenden Gunnell and gents from the London Symphony Chorus.

The playing of the LSO was a constant pleasure this evening, nary a weak link in the ensemble. With his detailed approach and care for orchestral balance, Pappano capitalized on the divided strings of the massive ensemble, highlighting the often brilliant writing of the symphony. Nowhere more so as in Gretchen, where Liszt at times reduces the orchestral forces to a chamber music scale. The admirable LSO woodwinds, especially Bobby Cheng’s oboe and Adam Walker’s flute, often in dialogue with groups of or even solo strings, always set the proper tone and atmosphere.

“Total Liszt” was a superb evening. Alice Sara Ott’s performance of the Totentanz was in a class of its own and in spite of some minor quibbles, A Faust Symphony remained a remarkable achievement as well. Running well over 70 minutes the symphony can be a daunting prospect, yet performances of such constant high quality as here by Pappano and the LSO are liable to convince you it has to be this way. The label of “heavenly length”, as in the case of Schubert’s later works, wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Tchaikovsky feast in Munich

Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23
Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 64

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
Munich, Gasteig, 26 January 2015

Mikhail Pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev is an enigmatic conductor. Each time I have heard him in concert with his Russian National Orchestra he left quite a different impression than with his recordings. While in his discs he often sounds cold, underwhelming or merely eccentric, live I always found him a lot more exciting and even revelatory in the Russian repertoire. This time again, in a Munich concert, his traversal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was a gripping experience, offering remarkable musical insights and a sonority that convinced you he was really providing us a look into the composer’s soul. Or how ultra-familiar music can still surprise.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Pictures from Alice Sara Ott

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in D Major, D. 850 (Op. 53)

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 4790088 DDD

Alice Sara Ott

Pictures from Alice Sara Ott

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.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Batiashvili’s Brahms

Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 77
Clara Schumann: 3 Romances for Violin & Piano, Op. 22

Lisa Batiashvili, violin
Alice Sara Ott, piano
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Deutsche Grammophon 4790086 DDD 48m

Lisa Batiashvili

Lisa Batiashvili plays Brahms

The Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili teams up for her second Deutsche Grammophon disc with the Staatskapelle Dresden and its principal conductor Christian Thielemann in this new recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The 33-year-old Batiashvili has quickly established herself as one of the most acclaimed and sought-after violinists of the day. She holds the position of “Capell-Virtuosin” in Dresden for the 2012/13 season, emphasizing her special relationship with the reputed orchestra and while falling short of being revelatory, her Brahms nonetheless makes a fine stand among the many reference recordings available.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Loud, louder, loudest

Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela (from Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22/2)
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto, Op. 16
Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Symphony #5, Op. 64

Alice Sara Ott, piano
National Orchestra of Belgium/Stefan Blunier
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 23 November 2012

In the Meet & Greet that preceded the performance, Swiss-born conductor Stefan Blunier pointed out how difficult it is to start a concert with Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela. That was unfortunately proven true in this concert with the National Orchestra of Belgium on the next to the last day of the Brussels Bozar Marathon Week. The program was dubbed “Strong musical stories”. Strong they may have been, but the stories sounded surprisingly similar in Blunier’s hands. Leading a massive orchestra for Sibelius’ Swan, Blunier opted for a slow pace but remained more analytical than atmospheric and allowed far too outspoken contrasts and brusque interruptions of orchestral sections (especially brass and bass drum). The cor anglais made a commendable contribution but he was too prominent as if it was his concerto and a swifter tempo would have saved him from some uncomfortable moments. The violins, massed to the left, sounded rather cold, yet the lower strings created an impressive sonority.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Alice Sara Ott Exhibits

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Variations on a Theme by Duport
Franz Schubert: Sonata #17 in D Major, Op. 53 (D. 850)
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, 31 July 2012

Alice Sara Ott isn’t afraid of challenges. This summer the German-Japanese pianist came up with a hefty recital program that at first glance looked quite unusual for her (having ventured so far mainly in Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt territory), pairing two monumental but very different works – the Schubert D major sonata and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet for a pianist who used to perform the full set of Liszt’s Etudes d’exécution transcendante in concert no mountain is too high to climb. After performances at the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg and at Verbier, she repeated the Schubert-Mussorgsky tour de force at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw on July 31.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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From Obscurity to Light

Robert Schumann: Symphony #3 “Rhenish”
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 18
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
Aachen, Eurogress, April 14, 2012

The Danish National Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1925 as the national radio orchestra in conjunction with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. Two legendary conductors played a key role in its formative years, the German Fritz Busch and the Russian Nikolai Malko. Over the years the orchestra has been working with several of the most acclaimed chefs, as well as composers as varied as Stravinsky, Prokofieff, Hindemith, Boulez and Henze when they came to premiere their work in Denmark. The Danish maestro Thomas Dausgaard acted as its principal conductor between 2004 and 2011 and while succeeded by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos in September 2012, Dausgaard remains the orchestra’s honorary conductor. Touring from Copenhagen to Germany, they brought to Aachen a program with works by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg and Richard Strauss.
Read the full review on Classical Net