Ott’s Refined Beethoven Holds Audience in the Palm of her Hand

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Beethoven, Barry: Alice Sara Ott (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra & RSNO Chorus / James Feddeck (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 5.5.2017. (SRT)

Brahms – Nänie; Symphony No.3, Op.90
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3, Op.37
Barry – Humiliated and Insulted (UK Premiere)

This concert was bookended by Brahms, and the two chosen works demonstrated two very different sides of the composer.  This performance of the third symphony was pretty much spot on in the colour that it drew from the orchestra, with the sheen on the violins, the glow on the cellos (and the knockout solo horn) in the Allegretto and the folksy feel to the winds in the slow movement.  As elsewhere in the concert, conductor James Feddeck did little more than beat time, but I liked his pacey speed for the Andante, even if some of the detail of the finale’s quiet ending was lost.

If the Third Symphony is all about grand statement (Brahms’ Eroica, as Clara Schumann called it) then Nänie, on the other hand, is about the beatific acceptance of fate. The text isn’t dissimilar to the much bleaker Gesang der Parzen, but Brahms gives it much warmer music with an altogether more benign feel. The orchestra had a lovely sense of lilt to it, as though bearing the music forward and, if the trombones added discrete weight at times, then the mood was, perhaps surprisingly, predominantly light, mainly thanks to the shining woodwinds. The RSNO Chorus sang with a similar feel for that mood. They’re still a touch on the breathy side at times, but their sound is much more focused than you might have expected from them before Greg Batsleer took them over, and they appear now to have a lot more confidence with the musical line, especially from the sopranos.

That didn’t do them a lot of good in Gerald Barry’s Humiliated and Insulted, which resembled a very difficult sight-reading exercise but without much payoff for the effort. Barry’s short choral piece is named after an early novel by Dostoevsky, and he writes in the programme note that “there is a forensic, clean violence in Dostoevsky that appeals to me,” and which, presumably, inspired the mood of his piece. The choir simply sings (or perhaps barks) the words “humiliated and insulted” over and over again, but they do so against a ringing chorale in the brass and angular jaggings of the string section. If the brass have the cleanness of Janáček’s Sinfonietta then the other musical lines, including the chorus, don’t seem to be paying much attention to what the others are doing, and parts of the work made me think of people sitting in different rooms ignoring their flatmates. Ultimately it struck me as pretty absurdist, and utterly bonkers, but I quite liked the idea, even if it ended up drawing attention to its own meaninglessness.

No meaninglessness in Alice Sara Ott’s refined performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, thankfully. This was a reading where soloist and conductor seemed to be entirely on the same page, producing a musical line that was self-consciously Romantic rather than “authentically” influenced. Ott’s take on the work was almost unremittingly smooth and cultured, but that’s a compliment in this context, so utterly sympathetic and blended with the orchestra was her playing. Only in the first movement cadenza did she whip up anything like a storm, but even this was predominantly lyrical, and after a Largo of Elysian stillness, the finale was perky and actually quite fun. The orchestra, too, seemed to take a big-boned view of the work, with only the (very effective) natural timpani giving a nod to period style.

For her encore, Ott surprised us all with a performance of Für Elise that held the entire hall in the palm of her hand, and wishing it sounded this subtle every time.

Simon Thompson

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