Alice Sara Ott, piano. DG 477 8095.
For the past four decades or so I have been quite content with Arthur Rubinstein's RCA recordings of the Chopin Waltzes on LP and CD, his perfectly chiseled renditions having weathered the tests of time. So it is with strong competition that any recording, like this new one from Alice Sara Ott, enters the field. Yet, Ms. Ott's interpretations are different enough, her passions strong enough, and her technical expertise proficient enough to make her new DG release more of a complement to Rubinstein's album rather than a rival to it.
Here's the thing one cannot help noticing in the first few Waltzes: Ms. Ott is more mercurial than Rubinstein. She exercises a wider and more-flexible range of tempos and dynamic contrasts than Rubinstein, pausing more often, changing up more often, speeding up and slowing down more often. Perhaps this is attributable to her age, early twenties when she recorded the program in August of 2009. Where Rubinstein is rock steady, Ms. Ott is more volatile, which, as I say, makes her disc worthwhile for its variation of approach. Nevertheless, she is never anything less than lyrical and poetic throughout, and she displays a genuine love of the music. When she needs to be playful, her music is playful; when she needs to be rhapsodic, she's rhapsodic; when she needs to be melancholy or somber or nostalgic or Romantic, she is up to the task. These are delightful interpretations in almost every way, even if they're not so conventional nor so authoritative as Rubinstein's.
Another thing in favor of Ms. Ott's disc is that she is one of only a handful of artists who performs all of Chopin's Waltzes, including the five or six that researchers discovered long after the composer had died. And she prefers to perform them from the original autograph manuscripts, regarding the autograph scores as truer than later published versions. Her attempt, she says, is to find "the true smell, the true colour" of each piece.
The DG recording engineers were also apparently attempting to capture true colors, in their case the true color of Ms. Ott's piano, a job the company usually do quite well. I have always enjoyed DG's piano sound, and they do not disappoint one here. The piano is never too close or too far away but miked at a moderate distance to simulate a stage performance from a few rows distance. While the sound is smooth and warm, to be sure, it is also nicely detailed, although not quite up to the standards of Rubinstein's old recording, which still sounds exceptionally good. Regardless, Ms. Ott's recording might just please more modern listeners with its velvety tones. The audio, therefore, reinforces a fine set of performances.
Incidentally, DG use a Digipak for this release, which continues to mystify me. People in the industry tell me Digipaks actually cost record companies more than standard jewel cases, so I have to assume the companies feel the public prefers them. Yet for me the Digipak is scary because if it breaks in any way, it's over. It's not like you can simply buy another jewel case. Well, it's neither here nor there. The packaging does look nice, I suppose.
About the Author
I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
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