Unorthodox Ott-Tristrano Piano Duo Excels in Transcriptions

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Debussy, Francesco Tristano, Stravinsky:Alice Sara Ott (piano), Francesco Tristano (piano), Queen Elizabeth, London 11.6.2015 (RB)

Ravel: Boléro arranged by Francesco Tristano
Debussy: Nocturnes:  Nuages; Fêtes
Ravel: La Valse
Francesco Tristano: A Soft Shell Groove Suite
Stravinsky:The Rite of Spring


German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott has garnered much critical acclaim, particularly for her performances of Liszt, and is seen by many as one of the world’s leading virtuosos.  Francesco Tristano is a slightly more unconventional performer who says he has been influenced by electronic and club music as well as classical music. Following a series of duo recital tours in Japan, South Korea and Australia, the duo have embarked on a European tour to coincide with the release of their first CD together, Scandale.  All of the pieces on the programme (with the exception of Tristano’s own composition) were two piano reductions of orchestral compositions and many started life as ballets for Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes.

The unconventional opening to the recital signalled what was in store for the rest of the evening.  Tristano opened his own piano transcription of Ravel’s Boléro standing. He played the insistent rhythm which runs through the piece with one finger with his foot down on the pedal while using his left hand to press down on the string at the back of the piano.  Sara Ott did an excellent job developing the famous theme which runs through the piece and used Tristano’s inventive harmonies to conjure up rich orchestral colours.  The duo did a very good job calibrating the build-up in dynamics which runs through the piece, and towards the end Sara Ott created some harsh stabbing sounds in the right hand, which were very effective if unorthodox.  I thought it was a very good transcription and a good way to open the concert, although Tristano’s part seemed a little dull as it seemed to be restricted to dealing with Ravel’s repetitive rhythm.

We then moved to Ravel’s piano transcription of two of Debussy’s nocturnes – Nuages and Fêtes.  Debussy wrote his nocturnes towards the end of the 19th century and he took his inspiration from a series of paintings by Whistler which explore the notion of tonal harmony.  The pieces explore the impressions created by light and its various effects.  Sara Ott and Tristano did an excellent job conjuring up the vast immutable vista depicted in Nuages using an impressive range of dynamics and sonorities.  Fêtes for my money was the performance of the evening with the duo playing the driving rhythms in a very exciting and well co-ordinated way and bringing the bustling exuberance of the festivals winningly to life.

The first half concluded with Ravel’s highly virtuosic transcription of La Valse and once more there was much to admire in this performance.  Sara Ott had the flashier part but it has to be said that Tristano has an extremely impressive technique and was able to match her all the way through.  The opening section of the piece where Ravel’s ballroom ascends from the mists was nicely handled and the glitter and glamour of the grand ballrooms of Vienna came vividly into focus.  In the middle section the composer evokes feelings of fear and increasing hysteria and I felt the duo were less successful depicting these feelings associated with the breakdown of the old world order, although the playing remained very accomplished technically.  The final section was a breathtaking virtuoso tour de force in the Argerich mould that was received with rapturous applause from the audience.

The programme notes informed us that Tristano makes no distinction between playing, composing and arranging and that he draws on an eclectic mix of sources to inspire him be it the music of Bach and Frescobaldi or the techno beat of the club scene.  The second half opened with his piece A Soft Shell Groove Suite which combined insistent rhythmic patterns on the pianos with foot stamping by the two pianists and clapping.  When the clapping section began Sara Ott stood up and encouraged the audience to join in while Tristano carried on jamming on the keyboard.  I enjoyed the piece and thought it was a good experiment although there was a little too much repetition and it would have been good to hear Tristano develop his thematic material more.

The final work on the programme was Stravinsky’s two piano version of The Rite of Spring.  After the scandalous opening of The Rite in Paris the work was initially better known through this two piano version and the composer performed this version himself with Debussy on the second piano.  Sara Ott did a great job simulating the sensuous opening bassoon melody before we moved into the explosive cycle of dances.  I liked Tristano’s handling of the stamping chords in Augurs of Spring and in general the duo played the faster sections with an unbridled ferocity allowing the violence and primitivism of the score to spill put.  At one point in the middle of the work Tristano started to stamp his foot very loudly again. While it’s good to see performers absorbed in music making, I think Stravinsky’s score is sufficiently powerful without the need for this.  The slower sections of the work were handled with a clinical precision that was admirable although I would have welcomed a more imaginative use of tone colour to enrich these sections.  The final sequence of dances were played with explosive power and extraordinary virtuosity bringing the recital to a barnstorming conclusion.

The duo performed the slow movement of a Mozart Sonata on one piano as an encore.  I am sorry to say that Tristano’s exaggerated ornamentation sounded flippant and vulgar – he is much to good a performer to play like this so better to avoid this material if it is too boring to play as it is written.

Overall, there was much to admire in this recital including some breathtaking virtuosity from both players.  I am not opposed to some of the unorthodox experiments the duo exposed the audience to but it would be useful for them to think about when to engage in these and when they need to rein in more.


Robert Beattie
















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