Alice Sara Ott brings Echoes of Life into satisfying focus at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, Alice Sara Ott’s Echoes of Life: Alice Sara Ott (piano), Hakan Demirel (video installation). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 7.9.2021. (CC)

Chopin – Préludes, Op.28, interspersed with:
Francesco TristanoIn the Beginning Was (UK premiere)
LigetiMusica Ricercata No.1
Nino RotaValzer
Chilly Gonzales – Prelude in C sharp minor
Toru TakemitsuLitany (In Memory of Michael Vyner)
PärtFür Alina
Alice Sara OttLullaby to Eternity (on fragments of Mozart’s ‘Lachrimosa’)

‘Concept’ programmes around established masterpieces can be hit and miss; it says much for Alice Sara Ott’s project that this works so satisfyingly. Her DG release Echoes of Life has gathered considerable critical praise (including for its recording quality: it is offered in Dolby Atmos, which pretty much puts you in the middle of the piano with the sound all around you: an acquired taste). Hearing it with a piano in traditional placement within a concert hall somehow brought the event more into focus, to its advantage,

Just as the Chopin Préludes offers a sequence of moments (preludes, but not specifically to anything), so the video installation offered a sequence of complementary images, architectural at base but with hints at times of the impossibilities of Escher. We start though from a cosmos of stars (reflected in the title of the Tristano, of course), to which, an hour and a bit later, we return, that time with Ott’s hyper-delicate Lullaby to Eternity. At other times (the first group of Chopin Préludes, for example, Nos. 1-4), we have geometric shapes made up of light (at which point it was impossible not to think of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach).

Francesco Tristano’s In the Beginning Was heard first, as a prelude to Préludes, a dreamy piece which references Bach (Chopin’s hero, of course). The emergence of the first Prélude from this was beautifully done by Ott; it should be stated straight away this was a well-nigh faultless performance throughout. Her innate musicality, her understanding not only of Chopin but of his ramifications, is complete. Interesting how within Chopin’s world, her touch seems infinitely varied yet perfectly apt (the lightness of the G major, Op.28/3, the sadness of the B minor, Op.28/6, the simplicity of the A major, Op.28/7, the disquiet of the F sharp minor Op.28/8, the tone-poem that is the D flat, Op.28/15 and the storm of the final D minor, for example). When we move out of Chopin’s orbit, her touch reacts accordingly, particularly when the lachrymose E minor, Op.28/4 is interrupted by the stark exercise on a pitch-class, Ligeti’s first movement of his Musica ricercata. The return to Chopin in the gentle oscillations of the D major, Op.28/5, was perfectly judged. There is a sort of atmospheric equivalence between the Tristano and the Gonzales Prelude in C sharp minor (presumably in that key to echo Chopin’s ‘extra’ Prélude, also in C sharp minor. Op.45).

The live atmosphere clearly suits Ott, as for all its sculpted perfection, there were Préludes here that were even finer than on Ott’s DG disc: the stormy G minor, Op.28/22, had more fire to it (in comparison, the studio album is just a touch more restrained), while the B flat major, Op.28/21 sang with even greater intimacy. The sixteenth Prélude (B flat minor) again was more unbuttoned live, more of an edge-of-the-seat ride.

Pärt’s Für Alina emerged naturally from the granitic C minor Prélude (No.20), its opening, bare statement echoing, from a time nearer ours, the close of that Prélude. Fitting, too, to have Takemitsu’s Litany (In Memory of Michael Vyner) – given Vyner’s association with the London Sinfonietta and their myriad unforgettable performances on this very stage. Nino Rota’s Valzer (heard after Op.28/9) exudes nostalgia; again, it worked better live as part of what was effectively Ott taking us by the hand through her journey in a concert hall than perhaps it does on the album.

Ott has always been something of a maverick, but one who clearly yearns to share her vision with others. Her spoken introduction was warm, welcoming; her clearly insatiable curiosity implies there will be many projects to come.

Colin Clarke

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