The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Liszt isn’t a great composer, but pianist Alice Sarah Ott makes him sound like one in her new CD of the “Transcendental Etudes”

August 11, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I have to be honest. I am one of those people who consider Franz Liszt a great pianist — but only a good or very good composer.

Is Liszt a great composer? I don’t think so. I just can’t honestly rank him with Bach, Handel or Vivaldi; Mozart or Haydn; Beethoven or Schubert; Schumann or Chopin; Brahms or Dvorak; Mahler or Stravinsky; Prokofiev or Shostakovich.

True, Liszt (below in a photo) composed some terrific music that I love to hear, including the Sonata in B minor, some of the “Years of Pilgrimage,” some of the austere or impressionistic late works, the two piano concertos and the three Petrarch Sonnets plus a few Hungarian Rhapsodies and some of his concert etudes as well as the overplayed “Consolation No. 3” and “Liebestraum.”

But overall, for me Liszt occupies substantially the same place – except a level or two higher — as his own mentor and paragon of virtuosity, Nicolo Paganini, whose work also always seems to me more interesting for the violin playing than for the music.

All the more reason, then, that I am struck by the new recording of his “Transcendental Etudes” by the young pianist Alice Sarah Ott.

The label, Deutsche Grammophon, is billing this as her second recording after her recording of the complete Chopin waltzes. But the truth is that this Liszt album was really her DG debut when it enjoyed a selected release in Australian and Asia.

Here is a link to a website launch:

But forget matters of chronology and marketing.

Here’s the thing: Ott does for Liszt etudes what Sviatoslav Richter used to do for Rachmaninoff preludes: Make them sound like better music than they are.

Ott’s virtuosity and finger work are impeccable. She never sounds as if she is straining, and apparently she has performed the complete etude set several times to critical and audience acclaim.

I have my favorites among the etudes. I love the “Prelude,” “Paysage” (Landscape), “Ricordanza” (Reminiscences). “Eroica” and “Harmonies du soir” (Evening harmonies). Most of the others strike me bloated. too busy and melodramatic.

Still, in all 12 etudes Ott, who possesses plenty of strength,  opts for subtlety and softness whenever she can. She avoids pounding and flashy displays. And that makes her recording a model of Liszt playing at least to my ears. I can’t imagine a more musical playing of these etudes, although I am suree they could be done with more showmanship.

Most of all, Ott brings a wide range of orchestral color and tone to the works, which too easily descend into top-flight piano pedagogy and wow’em pieces of music.

More than virtuosity, it is the musicianship and musicality that make this Liszt CD memorable for me. It is a fine way to start celebrating the Liszt bicentennial, which will take place in 2011.

Now, I feel the same way about Ott than I feel about Yuja Wang. I would like to hear both of these rising young stars in more musical and less flashy classical repertoire: Bach suites and partitas, Mozart and Haydn sonatas, Schubert and Beethoven sonatas, Chopin ballades and mazurkas, Brahms intermezzi.

It’s all in the future, a very bright future I think, for this very promising German-Japanese talent.

Here is a sample of Ott’s Liszt, an excerpt from the final “Transcendental Etude” which is “Chasse neige”:

And here she is playing the more musical, familiar and listenable “Paganini Etude” titled “La Campanella” (The Bell Tower):

What do you think of Alice Sarah Ott’s Chopin and her Liszt?

What do you think of Liszt in general?

Is Liszt a great composer or not? Why do you think so?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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