Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 (1794-5) [26:42]
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major op. 53 Waldstein (1803-04) [24:43]
Andante favori in F major WoO 57 (1803) [7:52]
Rondo a capriccio Op.129 Rage over a Lost Penny (1795) [6:20]
Alice Sara Ott (piano)
rec. August 2010, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9291 [65:40]

After greatly appreciating Alice Sara Ott’s Chopin Waltzes (see review) it didn’t take much persuading for me to dive into some choice Beethoven – works which Ott has been living and working with for the last 10 years. This is no guarantee of anything of course, but length of study and thoughtful consideration are aspects of a performance from which Beethoven no doubt benefits, and these are certainly well considered performances.

Less dramatic than Andras Schiff on his live ECM 1940/41 recording and a tad less sprightly than Alfred Brendel, Ott’s first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 still has plenty of zip and a wide dynamic impact. Unlike the gents, she seems keen to keep just that bit extra in reserve, not forcing the sound but building tremendous sonority in some of those pedalled sequences. There is a good sense of contrast and variety of colour, though those theatrical octaves into the sixth minute could have been a bit more intense. The second movement Adagio is always a bit special, though Ott doesn’t go in for quite as much lingering profundity as Bendel. She does create a superb atmosphere however, quietly building the movement as a whole rather than picking over each magical fragment. I actually prefer her flow and momentum in this movement, as it certainly works better in the central development section. The Scherzo is full of light and joy, as well as nicely pointing out the distinctive lines of counterpoint Beethoven throws around. She is less wild than Brendel in the Allegro section, allowing the arpeggio notes to tell a little more effectively and gaining more drama from the harmonies than from the spectacle of greater sparkle. There are fireworks in the final Allegro assai, but Ott doesn’t really spike the dynamic rise and fall to quite the same effect as Louis Lortie on the Chandos label, who arguably goes a little too far to the other extreme in some of his micro-phrasing of the main theme. Ott does have a good ear for detail however, and she catches Beethoven’s youthful exuberance in fine style.

The Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major op. 53 may share the same key as the first sonata in this programme, but is almost entirely different in character. From the period in which Beethoven was just beginning to confront his encroaching deafness, this later work “creates the impression of a tempest” in the first movement. Ott’s description doesn’t quite fit her playing, which is striking and full of character but more gentle than Lortie for instance. This is one of those movements where Alfred Brendel’s ability to shade and give depth has its distinct advantages, but Ott’s lightness of touch also gives a sense of clarity in passages which are more familiar as piano ‘noise’ rather than moments where detail can have its own strengths. I like Andras Schiff in this piece – ECM 1945/46, and the enigmatic opening of the middle movement is a moment of the deepest repose, and almost silent contemplation in his hands. Ott does play this opening more as a transition towards the entry of more recognisable thematic developments within the movement, where Schiff continues to milk that sense of mystery throughout the movement, reserving the real sense of relief for the bounteous gift of the final Rondo. Ott is really beautiful in the opening of this movement, following Beethoven’s pedalling instructions to lesser extremes than Schiff’s literal approach, but with an evenness of touch and softness of colour creating a lovely atmosphere. Her blistering technique carries us into the meat of the movement, exploring the sonorities of the piano through Beethoven’s bell like moments, and creating fantastic lines in the air with her superbly elegant passagework. There’s a minor flub in the left hand octave at 6:26, and these could have been a little firmer, but minor and picky points aside this is a performance with great variety and very many attractions.

The Andante favori was a movement originally intended for the Sonata No. 21, so its inclusion here is logical and sensible. Ott brings out the lyrical charm of the themes in the piece to great effect, creating different worlds with the variations in a similar way to the final movement of the previous sonata. I prefer her firmer weighting of the accompanying harmonies to Schiff’s sometimes rather indistinct inner voicing, and she has a playful almost music-hall character in several sections which raise a smile where one might not have been expected. The Rondo a capriccio in G major is a nice filler, accompanying the Sonata No. 3 as a piece from the same period, but making for a fun encore rather than anything else.

This is a very fine Beethoven recording with the piano up close, but with a warm tone and a nice acoustic to create a nice feeling of generosity in the sound. Alice Sara Ott’s playing can certainly stand up to close scrutiny, and her performances can also stand up to comparison with big names in this repertoire. I don’t really have a ‘good-better-best’ ranking for these pieces, and admire qualities in all the players and others besides. The name Gilels has popped up in comparison to Ott, and there are indeed moments of transparent insight where the music seems to float in similar ways. Ott fans will love this disc, and with some nicely demure photos inside it’s the kind of release which might hopefully popularise this music to wider audiences. This CD may or may not change hardened opinions out in classical music appreciation land, but I’d be glad to recommend it to anyone dipping their toes for the first time, and to seasoned and charmless cynics alike.

Dominy Clements

Easily recommendable to all-comers.

Easily recommendable to all-comers.