Chopin: Complete Waltzes (CD review)

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.



  1. I have a question and hopefully you will be able to help answer. I came across this album lately on Amazon and read the following review:

    "In the "Golden Age", one could easily tell a pianist by his/her individual sound and approach to the music. By the latter half of the 20th Century, that was less & less the case, as the purist approach and interpretive anonymity became fetishized. Now, the pendulum has swung back - and how. There is a growing trend in Classical music performance and Ms. Ott is part of it: with the endless duplication of recorded repertoire, musicians are becoming desperate to distinguish themselves from their peers. It seems musicians are offering increasingly bizarre interpretations not for personal expression, but to be different for the sake of being different.

    Take, for example, Ms. Ott's performance of the Waltz in A-flat, Op. 42 (the so-called "Two-Four" waltz): the charm of this piece rests on the conflict between the melody, which is shaped as if it were in 2/4 time, and the accompaniment, which is clearly in ¾ time (the actual notation of the waltz is in ¾ time, of course). If this waltz were an opera aria, it would depict a husband and wife bickering with each other. Ott throws rubato all over the place and constantly changes tempo, so that the point of the piece is lost. Ott fusses with the music far more than, say, Rachmaninoff would have, and in a totally inorganic way which is poles apart from the inner-logic of the late-Romantic generation.

    Clearly, Ms. Ott understands neither Chopin nor Romantic performance practice. Believe it or not, there were rules during the Romantic era. One such rule was to always begin a piece in a direct manner, so that rubato and other expressive devices would be effective when employed later in the work. In other words, rubato is an effect, not a constant."

    Does this review do the Album and the Pianist justice? I mean most complaints toward new virtuosos these days are with regards to the lack of musicality despite technical prowess. The pianist is clearly trying to do a new interpretation, and as you said, the young pianist is more volatile here. You pointed out that she was more mercurial than the stable Rubinstein.

    According to the reviewer above, however, Ms. Ott violated the rules of Romanticism by abusing her usage of rubatos. I am really interested in your take. Is there a proper way to play the Waltzes? Is Ms. Ott's approach a violation of Chopin's romanticism?

    I am a very new listener but these questions intrigue me. I have listened to Dinu Lipatti's version of the Waltzes as well as Stephen Goughs. Both are vastly different to Otts'.

    Source of review is Amazon. (I know, I know...but the reviewer "Hank Drake" seems to be pretty well regarded in reviewing Piano recordings)

  2. Why does any musician record a piece of music that others have already recorded a hundred times before? Why does any buyer want to hear yet another recording when there are already hundreds to choose from? A new interpretation of an old favorite? A better sounding recording? Listen to some recordings by the composer himself, and you'll find you may not like them as well as how other artists interpret them. Unbreakable "rules" for performance? No, just tradition, which may or may not be what's best for the music. What's "best" is what the individual listener enjoys most, given that the artist hasn't completely subverted or distorted the obvious intent of the music. For instance, I have no objection to Ms. Ott's freer interpretation of Chopin's waltzes, but why should I care? When I sit down to listen to Chopin's waltzes, I'll still listen to Rubinstein. :)

    1. Sounds good. I appreciate your response, John.

    2. I can't agree more nor say it more clearly. I am listening to Ms Ott's recording of Chopin's Waltzes as I am reading you two and it's been a moment of real pleasure.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa