Going to a concert at (Le) Poisson Rouge reminds me of listening to the old recording of Sviatoslav Richter and Andrei Gavrilov playing Handel’s keyboard suites. It sounds a bit like they were playing in a hotel lobby: teacups clink, throats are cleared, glasses smash, and the occasional telephone lingers unanswered. The difference, of course, is that EMI shouldn’t have left all that noise on the recording. At (Le) Poisson Rouge, that, along with the food, drink, and moody lighting, is all part of the experience.

Alice Sara Ott © Esther Haase and DG
Alice Sara Ott
© Esther Haase and DG

It could only suit certain types of artist, and Alice Sara Ott’s impulsive style fits it perfectly – even down to her onesie trousersuit and barefoot playing. Drawing impressive fullness and variation of sound from the baby Yamaha grand, Ott in this umpteenth concert to showcase her new album showed all of the qualities that make her one of the more interesting of the young pianists doing the rounds today. (I've also reviewed the three most prominent – Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifonov, and Benjamin Grosvenor – here on Bachtrack.) But, as always with all artists at the beginning of their careers, she also showed how much scope there is for development in certain repertoire.

It was the first half’s Mozart and Schubert that suffered. With their nine variations of Jean-Pierre Duport’s minuet, Mozart’s Duport Variations aren’t often heard in concert. Duport was the King of Prussia’s director of music, and the set was probably written by Mozart partly to curry favour while on his spring tour of 1789. The result is endearing, if gentle. Ott for the most part found a characteristically Mozartean grace and lightness, and maintained poise even in the more vehement variations. At times one wondered whether more could have been made of the left hand’s textures, and whether the Schumannesque ebb and flow of tempo was really so necessary at the expense of rigour.

The same problem was much more evident in Schubert’s fascinating D major sonata. In a spoken introduction, Ott underlined the importance of rhythmic development and disjuncture to this piece (although, in that same introduction, I didn’t especially need to know how long she had spent on the tarmac at Pittsburgh airport the other day). She is surely right, and the greatest performances of this sonata allow that structural focus on rhythm to come through naturally, alongside Schubert’s harmonic slips and shifts. Ott played hide and seek with the beat and seemed determined not to expose the instabilities of Schubert’s score but to see what she could do to it. Schubert lost, when he was not completely forgotten.

There was still much to admire. The slow movement was phrases as if it were a habañera, clipped rather than serene, but Ott drew enchanting pastels from that Yamaha in its terraced chords, colours that hardened and darkened as the movement took its course. There was a charming lilt and sway to the opening of the finale, a delicacy too, and its more ruminative sections were thoughtfully, gorgeously phrased. Yet as soon as something promising emerged, it was pulled around and lost its way.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was far more successful, and what was most surprising, given the Schubert, was how well Ott connected the miniatures together into a coherent whole. Mussorgsky does this himself through short “Promenades”, but Ott brilliantly judged the silences and sketched the transitions between the pieces so as to bring out the drama of the entire cycle. Again her talent for colour, shared by so many young pianists, stood out. Bright, golden fanfares began the first “Promenade”, while the shady, primeval browns of “Il vecchio castello” made up for a slight lack of mystery, and the desperately black sounds down low in “Bydlø” more than hinted at Prokofiev. Ott’s rhythmic focus paid dividends in “Tuileries” and the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”, and especially in the vicious attack she brought to “‘Samuel’ Goldenberg und “Schmuÿle”’. The “Catacombs” went by glacially, as if Ott were experimenting with the ends of notes – aptly – rather than their beginnings. Prokofiev again didn’t seem far away in a ferocious “Baba-Yaga”, and the transition to “The Great Gate of Kiev” was coloured almost miraculously, as it must. Here, unlike in the Schubert, virtuosity came with a purpose, and it made the performance far more convincing.