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Dip Your Ears, No. 212 (Alice Sara in Wonderland)

Alice Sara Ott’s latest release is titled “Wonderland”, because, well “Alice”, you know, finds herself enchanted in Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. It makes for a catchy play on words and suggests a concept album. Not surprising, because these days, every release from Deutsche Grammophon seems to be a little bit of a cross-over release; chasing the Zeitgeist, but with shoelaces tied together. It fits that Alice Sara Ott writes in the generally lucid liner notes how these Lyric Pieces (what with trolls and elves and speluncean royalty and lepidoptera being depicted) are a ‘Wonderland’ to her.

On the cover she’s is surrounded by what are – I think – paper origami butterflies, a reasonably subtle hint at Grieg’s Sommerfugl (op.43/1) and perhaps Alice Sara Ott’s half-Japanese background. In a PR department’s mind she is probably considered the ‘classical’ answer to her ‘romantic’ contemporary pianist colleague Yuja Wang (born in 1988 & 1987 respectively); sharing an instrument, the technical skill (Ott’s perhaps not quite as furiously prodigious), and beauty – where Ott scores high(er) on classical beauty and dress – even with the occasional skin-tight leather pants – of the kind an ideal daughter-in-law would wear. (Whether her state of dress would merit a whole essay in The New Yorker, on the other hand, I doubt.)

available at Amazon
E.Grieg, PC, Lyric Pieces,

available at Amazon
E.Grieg, PC, Lyric Pieces,
J.Perianes/BBC SO/S.Oramo
Harmonia Mundi

available at Amazon
E.Grieg, PC, PS, Lyric Pieces et al.,
L.O.Andsnes/Bergen PO/D.Kitayenko
Virgin (Erato)

available at Amazon
E.Grieg, PC, Symphony,
H.Schuch/WDR SO/E.Aadland

Scratch away that outer, thin marketing froth, and what shows is a charming, elegant recording: a very straight forward classical release of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto with select Lyric Pieces added. The all-Grieg idea, instead of coupling the piano concerto with Schumann’s (as is a hoary vinyl- and CD-tradition) or Liszt (as Ott had initially toyed with, Liszt’s, due to the Grieg-Liszt connection[1]), is at least minimally uncommon and certainly welcome, if not novel.

The ingredients are top-notch, starting with the impeccable, neat Alice Sara Ott, then the cerebral and ever-terrific Esa-Pekka Salonen, and finally one of the best orchestras around, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO). The promise is one of a coolly glistening, perhaps slightly athletic concerto; the fulfilment is a little broader than that – eschewing any and all extremes, a silver river that flows by without meandering. It’s not ostentatiously romantic, happily not a ‘Rachmaninoff-for-smaller-hands’ account, it’s also not very Mozartean (as Rudolf Buchbinder made the concerto sound in a surprising and excellent outing with Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic, some years ago), it’s not overly streamlined, it’s decidedly not cold. It’s inoffensive, gorgeous, neither sterile nor involving, it’s superbly played and very well recorded. It’s graceful middle-of-the-road Grieg, which is what Grieg seems to lend himself to. If it were not performed with such above-average perfection, it might be considered the 50-yard line of Grieg concertos.

It’s almost eerily similar to another recent (also live) recording that combines the concerto with Lyric Pieces (although four of Ott’s twelve chocies overlap), namely that of Javier Perianes on Harmonia Mundi with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo. If I had to choose between the two, Ott would win out; when she differs, however marginally, in tempos, she’s a touch fleeter, which I like… and the recorded sound (and orchestra’s wind section: no hiss with the Bavarians) is slightly better on DG, which becomes notable in the slow movement. Compared to Herbert Schuch’s recording on Audite (a very delicate, favorite performance, with the WDR SO Cologne and Eivind Aadland) the sound is more direct and almost (and only in comparison) brash.

In the Lyric Pieces Ott (and the acoustic) is a little drier, a little leaner, while Perianes indulges in a freer rubato. Incidentally that’s closer to Grieg, whose rubato was very free-wheeling, indeed. Another fine, slightly specialist release, of Grieg’s Piano Concerto and select Lyric Pieces (played on Grieg’s piano and trying to emulate Grieg’s own performances) shows this to be the case, namely that of Sigurd Slåttebrekk with the Oslo Philharmonic under Michail Jurowski on Simax (ionarts review here: Musical Journey Through Norway). Alice Sara Ott navigates her way through these pieces in similar manner as with the concerto. She won’t indulge, and while her butterfly is fast and sufficiently nervous, she doesn’t deliberately undercut the romantic cliché, either. Like that butterfly, the pieces flit by with great pleasantness and slight blandness.

If that sounds like a gentle bashing, it’s not intended that way. These qualities are are no detriment to the music or recording. Actually, this disc could be considered an ideal Griegtroduction: it does not overly color the canvas of the music and leaves the ears ready, thereafter, to open-mindedly receiving and considering any number of differing interpretations. The only snag: There is one similar recording already, which does all that, a little more of it, arguably a little more interestingly while doing it, and certainly no worse at it. That’s Leif Ove Andsnes’ first, super-stormy, recording of the concerto with the Bergen Philharmonic under Dmitri Kitayenko which, in a coupling on a Virgin twofer (now Erato, if only Warner only re-issued it at last, hopefully with the same Delacroix’ “Orphan girl seated in cemetery” on the cover), added many more lyric pieces and the Piano Sonata on two discs priced lower than the DG release. “Wonderland” will be released in most markets on September 9th.

[1] Grieg went to Rome in 1870 and visited Franz Liszt whom he showed his concerto. The latter sigh-read through the work and was much impressed and congratulatory about it. 

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