Apart from the crunching key change near the end, the only variation in Ravel’s Boléro comes through its dynamics and its brilliantly inventive scoring. Ravel described it as a “very long, gradual crescendo”, a work “of orchestral tissue without music”. Strip away that scoring and what is left? A fascinating proposition. Ravel made an arrangement for two pianos in 1930, but tonight’s enthralling recital opened with Francesco Tristano’s own arrangement, performed with his regular concert partner, Alice Sara Ott.

Alice Sara Ott and Francesco Tristano © Marie Staggat | DG
Alice Sara Ott and Francesco Tristano
© Marie Staggat | DG

Tristano was responsible for the snare drum motif, first heard through him tapping out the rhythm on a single note, while leaning into the piano to dampen the string. If Tristano was the snare drum, Ott embodied the entire orchestra, hypnotising the audience with Ravel’s repetitious melody. Variation came through dynamics, of course, but also through the registers explored, from bell-like chimes and trills in the upper register to thumping bass octaves. She also exercised remarkable metrical freedom in a work so tied down by its insistent ostinato. During the furious, dissonant fistfuls of notes towards the climax, almost propelling Ott from her stool, I feared not for the robust Steinway, but for Ott herself, wringing her right hand as soon as the dance collapsed in a tumbling heap. A spectacular performance and this was just the opening number.

Swapping pianos, Ott transferring to Tristano’s Yamaha, Spanish heat was briefly forsaken for balmy Debussy. The impressionist blurs and smudges of Nuages cooled the emotional temperature before a return crossing of the Pyrenees for a rhythmically crisp Fêtes.

The contrast between playing styles was nicely exemplified by the performance of Ravel’s La valse. Ott’s style can be volatile – she is a mercurial firecracker at the keyboard despite her slender frame – while Tristano is more restrained, the steadying rock. Communication between pianists was impish – a glance, a grin, a look of sheer joy as Ott’s pulsing bass stole in as the waltz rhythm was first hinted at. As the dance careered out of control, fists and heels of the hand were employed along with outrageous glissandos, until the waltz imploded upon itself. As she left the platform, Ott checked her fingertips… I suspect for blood.

Alice Sara Ott © Marie Staggat | DG
Alice Sara Ott
© Marie Staggat | DG
Lengthy piano tuning during the interval helped both insturments recover, in readiness for a finger-crushing Rite of Spring. But first, Tristano’s own A Soft Shell Groove Suite, a foot-stamping, toe-tapping work, full of jazzy syncopations and even audience participation via clapping. It was inconsequential stuff, but provided some light relief in a fatiguing programme, both for performers and listeners.

The 1913 Paris première of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a scandal – a sensational episode in music history provoking a near-riot in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The work provides Ott and Tristano with their “Scandale” concert programme, in which the Rite is the centrepiece. As with Boléro, it’s difficult to forget the original orchestration, but as soon as Ott’s ‘bassoon’ sinuously stole into view, the spell was cast. Both players hurled themselves into the pounding “Augurs of Spring” while the “Dance of the Earth” was met by visceral playing, threatening to destroy both keyboards. Softer moments, such as the “Spring Rounds” khorovod, had lift and lilt, trills tickling the ear with their tintinnabulations. The “Sacrificial Dance” provided a properly devastating finale.

Throughout the evening, the platform manner was delightfully relaxed, Ott happily chatting to Tristano during applause, negotiating when to swap pianos or at which keyboard they were going to perform their encore (from Mozart’s Sonata in D major K448). During this Andante movement, playful glances were exchanged and the players almost leaned into each other; a tender end to an often bruising, yet thrilling, recital.

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