Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky
executives at DG really decide that the best way of dealing with the worldwide
decline in classical music sales was to promote the fortunes of pretty young
things who could also play the piano? That's probably way too cynical a view.
Of course, said executives would no doubt argue that it was the power and
individuality of their playing that first attracted them to 22-year-old Yuja
Wang and 23-year-old Alice Sara Ott. But it's hard to ignore the fact that
both women are extremely good-looking; Ott could probably pass as a super-model.
The question, as always, is how well do they
play? And the answer is, very well indeed. I favorably reviewed Yuja Wang's
last disc, a thematically organized recital titled "Transformations." I was
deeply impressed by her courageous programming choices---more experienced
pianists might have thought twice about gathering Stravinsky's Petrouchka,
both books of Brahms' Paganini Variations, and Ravel's own, one-piano
transcription of his La Valse on the same disc. But I was even more
impressed with the individuality and technical wizardry with which Wang
dispatched these notoriously, stupendously difficult works. I haven't caught
up with either of Alice Sara Ott's recitals — a collection of Chopin's
Waltzes and Lizst's Transcendental Etudes — but I've read
enthusiastic reviews of both discs. Besides, any young pianist who takes on
Lizst's Etudes has earned my respect regardless of the outcome.
Clearly DG is carefully managing the careers of
these young artists. It can't be just a coincidence that after having made two
solo albums, they are both now releasing their first concerto performances.
Unfortunately, in this instance at least, it's easy to choose between them.
Alice Sara Ott's Tchaikovsky/Lizst program is definitely a winner; Yuja
Wang's Rachmaninov a major disappointment.
Or maybe not. If you've been looking for a
version of the Paganini Variations that avoids its abundant humor, charm,
and sparkle in favor of something stern, remorseless, and aggressive, this might
well be the disc you've been waiting for. The problem is that Wang and Abaddo
approach the work as if written by Prokofiev and not Rachmaninov. The faster
music is hard-edged and hard-driven, cast in glinty steel and played with a
piston-like precision. The slower variations lack warmth and seem rushed along
with no shaping or special character. It takes a certain kind of genius to make
that famous 18th Variation sound labored. In all this, Abbado's
literal-minded accompaniment adds nothing to the mix.
I somehow expected the Second Concerto to be more
successful, but I was again disappointed. Here Wang seems adrift, out of her
element. She resists shaping the music in an individual way. A passage will
start off promisingly, and then fade without much expression or development. If
her intent was to resist any trace of sentimentality, she's succeeded far too
well. As well played as it is, Wang's Rachmaninov Second lacks the emotional
commitment and intensity one associates with the composer. Again Abaddo isn't
much help. He sounds uninvolved, and his tempos drag. Apparently he's played
this work one too many times over the course of a long career. This is a shame
because the Mahler Chamber Orchestra plays the music with their usual
magnificence; but alas, in a lost cause.
Alice Sara Ott fares much better. This isn't a great Tchaikovsky B flat Concerto: it can't compete against the likes of Horowitz, Richter (with Ancerl, not Karajan), Gilels, and Cliburn. But any young pianist who can make this overly familiar score sound fresh, individual and compelling has done a good day's work in my opinion. Ott successfully resists the temptation to turn the music into mere virtuoso display, though there is no shortage of pure physical excitement. Her tempos are just a little slower, more deliberate than normal, and she finds a richness and variety in the music than many other more precipitous virtuosos miss or pass over too quickly. In the end, she strikes a fine balance between gravitas and lyricism, and the dark-shaded tonal beauty of her sound adds a welcome touch of sensuality. Ott brings similar virtues to her performance of the Lizst. Though it is just about my least favorite concerto ever, she compelled my attention throughout; and in the end I have to admit (howsoever reluctantly) that I even enjoyed the experience. In both works, Thomas Hengelbrok and the Munich Philharmonic provide stirring support.
We'll be hearing more from both young women in the future. Wang is a better, a more intelligent pianist than this dismal Rachmaninov disc suggests. One would hope, both in her case and Ott's, that DG lets these artists develop at their own pace, in their own way, and does not rush them into repertory that they're not prepared for. As for the Paganini Variations and the Second Concerto, there are way too many alternatives out there. Those in search of both works on the same disc should consider the Decca reissue that includes Julius Katchen's great (and still good-sounding) performances. For those looking to supplement historical versions of the Tchaikovsky concerto with a fine-sounding modern performance, Alice Sara Ott will do very nicely indeed. For most everybody else but me, the Lizst will count as a considerable bonus.
Alice Sara Ott
Alice Sara Ott
Alice Sara Ott