Pictures at an Exhibition
Piano Sonata in D, D850
Alice Sara Ott (piano)
Recorded July 2012 in The Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, St Petersburg
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: February 2013
CD No: DG 479 0088
Duration: 72 minutes
The coupling may be thought unusual, even incongruous, and certainly the playing-order, beginning with Mussorgsky, is the wrong way round – a marketing rather than a musical decision – for the ‘walk’ of Schubert’s finale would have neatly segued into the inviting ‘Promenade’ of Pictures at an Exhibition.
Getting it right is easy, of course, just select track 17 for the opening movement of D850 (1825) to which Alice Sara Ott initially brings athletic vitality if little relaxation let alone Viennese charm; her muscularity is certainly bracing and suggesting of Beethovenian tempest and heroism given with a heady sense of impulse and direction that is certainly exciting and brought off with conviction. In a Sonata that can seem structurally disproportioned over its four movements, Ott keeps her eye on the lengthy second (which can dwarf the first one even with its exposition repeat, here observed) by taking its Con moto marking not only to heart but to advantage. The scherzo has martial weight with the trio a moment of repose, and the finale not only charms but scurries. It isn’t Brendel, it isn’t Curzon, but Ott brings her own insights and validity to a very fine work. However, the quiet ending is spoilt by too-soon applause disrupting the contented mood; it may have happened like that on the night but it should have been removed for home listening.
To open Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) Ott presents ideally the suggestion of a newly-arrived spectator deciding which of the Viktor Hartmann paintings to view first: it’s ‘Gnomus’, a malevolent creature indeed as imagined by Ott. Further thoughtfulness informs the viewer moving from one canvas to another. Ott gives a suitably painterly account of Mussorgsky’s piano score, the only instrument he intended for this vivid work, but although remaining a pianist’s pleasure it has been usurped somewhat by the numerous orchestrations and arrangements, notably the pristine scoring by Maurice Ravel (made in 1922 at conductor Koussevitzky’s suggestion). Nevertheless, there is nothing monochrome about Ott’s vibrant and imaginative account, sultry, bustling and powerful as required. Of the closing two tableaux, ‘The hut on fowl’s legs’ is vehement and ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ solemn and stirring; the latter may lack for Ravel’s gong, bells and sonorous brass, but Ott brings it alive true to Mussorgsky’s original and singular vision.