Alice Sara Ott
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto – Lyric Pieces
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 2016
It is really marvellous this Wonderland that Alice Sara Ott dedicates to Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, the piano suite from Peer Gynt and some Lyric Pieces.
The Piano Concerto is the only one concert that Grieg has completed for this instrument, but it was a lucky work, since it is one of the most famous piano concert ever: in 1939 the first movement was part of the soundtrack of Intermezzo, with Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman.
The Concerto was written in Søllerød (Denmark) in 1868, when the composer was twenty-four, but reached its final form only in 1907, a few weeks before his death (and perhaps only for that). It is usually compared in writing and style to the piano concerto by Robert Schumann, which Grieg had heard in a performance of Clara Schumann in Leipzig ten years earlier. The premiere of the Piano Concerto was held in 1869 in Copenhagen, with Edmund Neupert as soloist. Neupert was later dedicatee of the second edition of the concerto, while the first was dedicated to Rikard Nordraak, recalled in Grieg’s musical catalogue also for the Funeral March. In 1870, Franz Liszt, who had already expressed enthusiasm about the concert, played it at first sight during Grieg’s trip in Italy.
The concerto, like other compositions by Grieg, evokes Norwegian folk music, as the second descending followed by a descending third placed at the beginning of the first movement, which is a tune that recurs also in the String Quartet.
As for the sixty-six Lyric Pieces, they are collected in ten volumes published between 1867-1901, of which Wonderland offers a carefully chosen selection, since it includes all the most famous pieces, such as Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen), To Spring (Til våren), March of the Trolls (Trolltog) and Butterfly (Sommerfugl).
Alice Sara Ott creates around these songs a network of delicacy and magic, adding a youthful touch that makes the interpretation not only enchanting, but also sumptuous: the “wonderful” implied by the album title is definitely the distinctive element of Wonderland, but it is certainly not the only one. The Concerto, for example, is rich in nuances and emotion and the argentine sound of the piano becomes a silver waterfall under Ott’s fingers. In this regard, the virtuosic cadenza at the end of the first movement deserves a particular mention. As to the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducts the excellent Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, it is tense and helps to push forward the musical flow without relaxations or distractions, proving to be a valuable ally of the pianist.
Lyric Pieces and Suite from Peer Gynt are an enrichment to the Concerto and highlight elements that were previously barely mentioned or add new ones, so Wonderland assumes an organic appearance. Thus, for example, Ott plays Once Upon a Time with a feeling that you could easily define melancholic, but to which is opposed an execution that has something jocose. If Butterfly is a floating piece and the Elves’ Dance are animated by the true spirit of dance music, To Spring brings a breath of freshness in which the pianist plays well on the contrasts in the first section and in the repeat, which are more dynamic, and finds instead a delicate and argentine sound in the quieter middle section. Notturno, for its part, is poignant and painfully evokes distant suggestions. Two consecutive pieces, Brooklet and In the Hall of the Mountain King, allow Ott to create, in the first, the dynamic contrasts between piano and forte and in the second, to excel in a progression from slow to fast. In Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, finally, Ott prepares to us a joyous end and recreates the bell pealing of a festive day.
My opinion of this long-awaited album is therefore excellent and I hope that it will find the admiration and consideration it deserves.