For the last few years I have been on a quest to find an entirely satisfactory performance of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, Op 53. Despite having listened to innumerable versions, all seemed to me to have slightly slow tempi or unconvincing pedalling or some other flaw. I was therefore intrigued to see that on her fourth CD—after a complete set of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes (4778362), the complete Chopin Waltzes (4778095) and the mandatory concerto CD (Liszt and Tchaikovsky: 4778779)—Alice Sara Ott has issued another program of significant ambition: both Beethoven’s C major piano sonatas, Op. 2 no. 3, and the “Waldstein”, with, from their respective periods, the Rondo a Capriccio known spuriously as “Rage over a Lost Penny”, and the huge Andante favori, which was originally to have been the “Waldstein”’s slow movement. Despite their relatedness pianists rarely include both the Sonata and the Andante in the same CD program—Andras Schiff on ECM (ECM1945/46) is the only one I can think of—and it is particularly pleasing that Ott has chosen to do so. What makes it even more satisfying is that this is the finest performance of the “Waldstein” that I have heard in a long time. Ott’s concept of the first movement—“very gloomy” she says in the liner notes—results in a beautifully graded and pensive performance that brings out many felicities in the writing, particularly in the inner voices, and beautifully juxtaposes the restless main theme and the calmer second. She says of the hair-raisingly difficult Finale that it is like a “new dawn”; Beethoven marks this Allegro moderato, which has led to a wide range of tempi among pianists, and I have to say that Ott’s chosen tempo seems to me exactly right. Although relatively fast, she still leaves herself enough leeway for a truly vertiginous Presto in the final thematic apotheosis, breezing admirably through the notorious octave glissandi and double-stop trills, from which one emerges feeling almost stunned. The CD presents the Andante favori directly after the “Waldstein”, and Ott dispatches the streams of rapid octaves effortlessly in a joyously characterful rendition of this charming piece. She ends with the Rondo a Capriccio and initially the naïveté of this rondo seems almost shocking, but as it charges along with increasing wit and intensity, it becomes clear that the work is quite adequate to the job of winding-up this astonishing recital.
Preceeding these monolithic movements, Ott gives a playful and energetic performance of the Op. 2 no. 3 Sonata, one of Beethoven’s most distinctive early works—sufficiently so, in fact, to have been a partial model for Schubert’s huge, unfinished, Reliquie C major Sonata, D840. Could this be the first issue in a complete Beethoven cycle? One would hope so. But, even if not, it is still a particularly outstanding disc.