Grieg’s virtuosic Piano Concerto in A minor has languished in recent years and its inclusion on the new album release Wonderland from Deutsche Grammophon, by the 28-year-old German pianist Alice Sara Ott represents a welcome return. Ott combines this all-Grieg anthology with a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces and selections from Peer Gynt for solo piano.
Existing recordings of Grieg’s Piano Concerto go back some time – Perahia in 1989, Michaelangeli in 2000, Leif Ove Andsnes in 2003 and Howard Shelley in 2009. As for recordings by female pianists, there appear to be just two – private recordings from live recitals given by Martha Argerich in 1968 and 1969.
Performing with Ott on this recording of the piano concerto is the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a live performance at the Herkulessaal of the Munich Residenz in January of 2015.
The remaining tracks are taken up by 10 of Grieg’s contrasting Lyric Pieces and 2 of Grieg’s own piano arrangements of Solveig’s Song and In the Hall of the Mountain King, from Peer Gynt, recorded in April 2016 at the Meistersaal in Berlin. It’s the seventh recording for Ott on Deutsche Grammophon.
The American pianist Stephen Kovacevich who recorded the piano concerto in 1970, observed that the lack of the public performance of a piece does not preclude a good recording. In Ott’s case she has given at least two public performances of this concerto, prior to recording it. One performance was conducted by Thomas Dausgaard and the other by Lorin Maazel (in which she performed barefoot).
Grieg’s Piano Concerto combines diverse elements which include bravura passages, intense lyricism and rustic themes informed by the rhythms of the Norwegian folk dance known as the Halling and the Hardanger fiddle style.
Grieg was still a young man of 25 when he composed this concerto in 1868 – a few years younger than Ott when she made this recording. Ott combines her brilliance with a sensitivity to the long melodic lines. The measured rhythm of the dance is precise and frames the pace for the third movement. Her subtle use of rubato and crunching dissonance contrasts with seamlessly controlled, delicate rippling passages and a bank of majestic chords, bringing to mind the landscape of Norway and its mythological characters.
Grieg composed 10 volumes of Lyric Pieces. They are illustrative of his genius as a miniaturist to paint a picture in just a few minutes and Ott conveys these scenes impressively. Story-telling is the theme of this anthology of Lyric Pieces as Ott opens the selection with the tender narrative of Once Upon a Time opus 71/1; Butterfly opus 43/1 is played with light and luminous brilliance; there is rumbunctious impertinence in Elves’ Dance opus 12/4, March of the Trolls opus 54/3 and a Nordic darkness in The Hall of the Mountain King. Ott creates a scene of pastoral beauty in To Spring opus 43/6; Brooklet opus 62/4 is performed with gracefully flowing lines replete with swells and cascades.
Finally, the party piece that is Wedding Day at Troldhaugen opus 65/6 which Grieg composed to celebrate his own 25th wedding anniversary. Ott opens with a steady stream of open 5ths anchoring a marching melody with punctuated by lively rhythmic accents. She picks up the pace as she segues into a well-controlled second section which involves rapid alternating chords and octaves between right and left hands, broadening into chords which sweep the length of the keyboard. The tranquil middle section is followed by a slightly more broad reprise of the first section.
With this album Ott has given us a fresh look at Grieg’s piano music and his Piano Concerto in particular. It would be inspirational to young women pianists to hear it, judging Ott’s recording not simply because it is a pioneering recording for a female but because she is a brilliant young pianist who happens to be female.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©