The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Alice Sara Ott’s Chopin waltzes are a superb way to kick off the Chopin Year and announce a major piano talent

February 1, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

2010 is a Chopin Year and Schumann Year, marking the 200th birth of each famed Romantic composer.

The 2010-11 season is also, by the way, a Mahler Year (centennial of his death) and a Samuel Barber Year (the centennial of his birth).

Of them all, I think Chopin will be the hardest to celebrate and presents the most challenges.

Between piano students, amateur pianists, and professional concert artists and teachers, it is hard to think of Chopin works that haven’t been played.

Or overplayed.

What new can be said about or through Chopin’s beloved works?

How can one reasonably expect to improve on Rubinstein or Horowitz, Cortot or Arrau, Ax or Argerich?

It’s tough.

Unless you have a truly unique interpretation – and with Chopin that would probably amount to distortion — it strikes me that you can do one of two things:

You can either present works in a recital format, so the listener finds new connections between and among well-known pieces. (That is why I hope Nonesuch records Richard Goode’s Bach-Chopin recital at Carnegie Hall.)

Or you can present a new blockbuster talent.

With the German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott (below), Deutsche Grammophon has opted for the latter.

Only 21, she is a phenomenon to watch and listen to. True, many eyes are gazing at Yuja Wang, who also shows such promises at a blazing piano talent.

But I think the prize-winning Ott, who has been called “Mademoiselle Liszt” for her apparently effortless and natural virtuosity, has all the makings of the real deal – a superstar virtuoso who is also deeply musical.

Her new album of Chopin waltzes — released last week — is her first international DG debut, says the press releases. But her real DG debut came last year in Liszt’s knuckle-busting “Transcendental Etudes.”

That’s a brave gamble to take with your first album, and she succeeded.  (My guess is DG will push that CD for next year’s Liszt Year.)

No question about it: Ott has all the technique you or the music could want or use – and then some.

More importantly, especially when it comes to Chopin, she has a great sense of rhythm and structure, of melody and clarity. She plays Chopin with the large helping of classicism that Chopin himself prized. (Chopin did not especially like his Romantic contemporaries, despite their enthusiastic praise for him.)

True, I have some minor quibbles. I would like the see the E minor waltz come at the end of the usual canon and not get mixed in with unknown and unpublished posthumous works. (I love Stephen Bishop Kovacevich’s CD for EMI of the major waltzes in their chronological order rather than their published order and paired with Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales.”) And I find parts of the famous A minor waltz of Op. 34 a bit too slow in places for my taste.

But those are tiny points compared to Ott’s impressive sense of line and phrasing, her instinctive ability to vary repeats through very Chopinesque subtleties of accent and loudness, to bring out new voices and melodies. As the poet Ezra Pound advised, she makes them new.

Not since Arthur Rubinstein’s last recording of the waltzes, made in the 1960s, have I been so convinced, captivated and charmed by these waltzes.

Most of the notes can belong to students and amateurs – the waltzes are often treated as learning pieces – but the music is first-class in most cases. And Ott does them and their many moods full justice.

In Ott’s hands, these waltzes, so often used as background music, are impossible to focus away from. Her playing, so full of musical and technical confidence, proves riveting and impossible to resist. And it is all captured by the engineers in great sound.

It all makes me anxious to hear Ott’s next solo release, which I hope is a recital program with several composers or else takes on Bach or Schubert, Mozart or Beethoven, Schumann or Brahms.

So I greet Alice Sarah Ott with same words that the young Schumann once used to greet the young Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”

Here’s a link to Ott’s official website:

And another link to her discussing and playing the Chopin waltzes on YouTube:

Smart concert presenters will book Ott now, while she is still affordable and available.

Which is your favorite Chopin waltz?

To play? To listen to?

Which recording of the Chopin waltzes do you most like?

Have you heard Ott? What do you think her playing?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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