Alice Sara Ott’s Memorable Grieg

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Delius, Grieg, Holst Alice Sara Ott (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 20.10.2013 (CC)

Delius – The Walk to the ParadiseGarden (A Village Romeo & Juliet)
Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
HolstThe Planets – Suite, Op. 32

Holst and Delius are not exactly associated with Ashkenazy the conductor (or with Ashkenazy the pianist, for that matter). They are not particularly associated with this reviewer, either, and in fact it was Alice Sara Ott that was the determining factor for this review.

Ashkenazy has not commercially recorded the Grieg Concerto as pianist to my knowledge (there is a YouTube performance, though, with the Bergen Philharmonic under Karsten Andersen). His conducting of the piece for Ott was remarkably sensitive. Ott impressed, generally speaking, in her London solo debut back in 2011, and she was even more impressive here. Her projection was carefully calculated. The hallmark of her playing was textural clarity. The reading was full of contrasts, and Ott seemed intent on foregrounding the Lisztian elements to Grieg’s writing. This seemed totally in keeping with Ott’s youth, and was particularly effective in the first movement cadenza. The central Adagio was a real meeting of minds – a glowing cello solo from Karen Stephenson – while the finale found Ott underscoring the folkloristic, dance elements to the music. If the closing chords were not exactly together, it was not enough to spoil a memorable account. Alas, there was no encore.

The Delius began the concert almost without warning. Ashkenazy shuffled up to the podium and just started before the audience was properly settled. His approach, also, counteracted any sense of the sleepy. Phrases, especially phrase endings, were tenderly, affectionately done, so it came as a surprise that the brusqueness of the end – immediate applause – seemed to mirror its rather abrupt beginning.

Am I misguided to wish for the addition of Colin Matthews’ Pluto to The Planets? This is the extra movement, composed by Matthews and recorded by the Hallé under Elder on Hyperion (review) Perhaps it would have been too much for a Sunday matinee audience, particularly the Philharmonia crowd. The actual performance of what, admittedly, Holst gave us, had everything one might expect: the orchestra technically excellent (stunning, in fact, especially in the scherzo of ‘Mercury’); some wonderful solos (especially, perhaps, the euphonium of Byron Fulcher); an expansive rendition of the famous theme in ‘Jupiter’; and great delicacy in ‘Neptune’. But it was not quite there. ‘Mars’ (which, like the Delius, began with no ‘inbreath’) was certainly loud but did not carry full force, nor was it unstoppably relentless. ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ , is in some ways the most difficult movement in terms of control, balance and atmosphere, and yet it sounded the least rehearsed here. ‘Neptune’ worked well, with beautifully controlled lower dynamics but had an off-stage female chorus that sounded, perhaps, a tad too near.

There was much to enjoy in this concert, but it was the Grieg that was by far the most memorable element. Much though I respect Ashkenazy as a musician, he seemed unable to inspire his forces to their absolute best.

Colin Clarke

Alice Sara Ott’s Memorable Grieg