Alice Sara Ott – The Chopin Project

Alice Sara Ott

German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott has recorded Chopin before – but not like this. Signed to Deutsche Grammophon, she has recorded the composer’s complete Waltzes for piano – along with discs of Beethoven, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Musorgsky. Now she returns to Chopin, but with the Broadchurch composer Ólafur Arnalds for company. The Chopin Project is their collaborative album, featuring recordings made by Ott on a less-than-perfect piano, complemented by pieces for strings from Arnalds.

Ott is enthusiastic about the project as we grab a quick phone call in-between her rehearsal schedule – which has just reached the Barbican, where she has selected a piano for a concert. So, as Arcana begins with every interviewee…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My mother is a professional pianist, so there is always music in our house. That means the first classical music I heard was probably when I was still in her belly! I think my first concert experience was when three years old, and I had to go with my mum as she couldn’t find a babysitters.

At that age, you’re not able to communicate with adults, but every child still wants to be understood. Everybody wants to find a way of expressing themselves other than with the voice, and I was fascinated by the idea of about 200 people listening to someone in a room, playing piano, without talking.

I think I started playing piano as a simple wish for being understood and getting some attention. It goes beyond spoken communication. The music was not necessarily what moved me, it was the situation, and the language everybody listened to and understood.

Can you remember your first encounter with the music of Chopin?

It was around five years old. I had a cassette tape – I think Deutsche Grammophon had a series for children where they got an actor to tell the story of the composer with different recordings. I think it was a birthday or Christmas present, and that was the first time I experienced it. I couldn’t pronounce it!

Where did you meet Ólafur?

I had never really listened to his music before, but I met him through a producer who used to be my producer at DG. When Ólafur started to talk about the idea he came across the Chopin Waltzes disc I had done, and he contacted me through the producer. In the beginning I couldn’t imagine the idea. I’m very careful with these collaborations, as I see myself as a core classical artist.


What did you think of his music?

When I listened to Ólafur’s music it had taste and style, and I really liked it, so we spoke on Skype and I ended up accepting the offer. I play the Chopin pieces as written, but it was good to get a little bit away from the perfect, stereotypical sound we get in recording these days. Everything is so clean and perfect, but in those days before recording it was not so important and everybody was closer to the artist. You don’t hear the pedals or the hammers in piano recordings any more, you just hear when the sound reaches the acoustic.

Nowadays we have great instruments, and great halls, but with The Chopin Project we wanted to bring people back to really listen and get an intimate experience. It was an all-acoustic thing, and it was great for me. We are planning on a tour with the project. It’s so much fun!

How much input did you have into Ólafur’s compositions?

Almost nothing at all, he wrote them separately. The one track where I’m playing is where I play little ornaments, but this is his part of the album – me joining his project, his idea.

I like the idea he didn’t do rearrangements and came up with original pieces, and I think the pieces with strings complement the ones with solo piano. He felt it was more appropriate for strings and the one track where he uses the solo violin.

You said how important the more natural approach to recording was – do you think modern recording can be too clinical sometimes?

It’s a very different sound experience, the concept is different. We tried to distance ourselves from how recordings are made today.

It’s a great thing the technology is so advanced and everything is possible, but sometimes I wish for more live moments, and I like to record something with a natural flow. You will never get the same as experiencing the music live, but it is a lot closer to that.

Will The Chopin Project bring his music to a new audience?

I hope so, and I want it to bring in not just a new audience but the audience that have heard him one thousand times. I think it sits very well with the times we live in. Things are so perfect in those human moments, experiencing live music – these moments are very precious. The old audience gets a new perspective, and at some points in the recording I can even hear myself breathing. It makes it very human.

You have worked and recorded with Francesco Tristano, who also crosses between classical and other forms of music such as techno. How did your collaboration begin?

With Francesco it started out of friendship; and a passion we share for the music of Bach. I grew up with him aside from our passion for food.

I had the idea to invite him on as a guest for a French Baroque album, and then for a Bach double album that didn’t work out. We decided to base a two-piano album around The Rite of Spring (given the title Scandale) and came across the music for the Ballets Russes company. These are some of the major pieces in classical music, so we chose Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and found a couple that went with it. We have now played 30 concerts together, and we’re at a point where we don’t think about most of the music on the disc originally being written for orchestra.

For me you enter a new world. We never can play without energy, and that’s the fun part. It’s very physical and we wouldn’t do it after an espresso or something! It’s all about dance music. It’s rhythmically very challenging but so fun. When we play it you see the audience react physically, moving their shoulders, and that’s so nice to see, that’s what music does and that’s the common language that goes beyond words, and makes you feel very privileged.

What are your future plans?

I’m in London now for my performance of the Liszt Piano Concerto no.2, and then I move on to Shanghai, South America, the United States and then a couple more times to London. Francesco and I will come to London with Scandale.

The Chopin Project is out now on Mercury Classics. You can find out more about Alice and her recordings by visiting her website

Maurizio Pollini plays Schumann and Chopin

© Cosimo Filippini / DG

Maurizio Pollini at Royal Festival Hall, 18 March 2015.

A solo piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall is always a special event, and if you haven’t tried it yet I thoroughly recommend the experience.

The sense of occasion such an event brings is enhanced as the soloist is hemmed in on all sides by the audience, with some on the stage and in the choir stalls behind – which is where I found myself for my first ever encounter with Maurizio Pollini.

The Italian, now in his seventies, has an illustrious recording and concert-playing career behind him. Two of the composers central to his repertoire are Schumann and Chopin, who formed one half each of this recital.

We heard Schumann first, with the brief but poetic Arabesque. This is a wonderfully romantic piece with a wistful main theme. Pollini was a bit stern with it, leaning more on the two short contrasting sections rather than indulging the main tune.

We moved on to the substantial Kreisleriana, a group of eight fantasy pieces dedicated to Chopin and inspired by the character Kreisler, in the creations of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Here Schumann alternates turbulent minor-key creations with softer, poetic major key ones. In Pollini’s hands the faster numbers threatened to disappear in a whirl of notes, the rhythms occasionally blurred, but there were moments of pure insight in the slower second and fourth pieces especially. The final piece, which to me sounds like a bird flying around in an increasingly irregular circle, was perfectly poised, leaving the audience with a sense of mystery.

For the second half Pollini brought out one of his concert staples, Chopin’s 24 Preludes – written around the same time as Kreisleriana. In just under forty minutes Chopin navigates a piece in each key, cleverly structured so that he effectively follows a ‘circle of fifths’. (In technical terms this means he moves from C major, and its relative key A minor, through G major (and its relative E minor) and so on, until travelling full circle.

This performance felt like one whole piece of 24 sections, brilliantly delivered and suitably dramatic. The centrepiece of the collection, the Raindrop prelude (no.15), epitomised Pollini’s approach by being relatively quick – while the faster preludes became thunderbolts from the blue.

Ending to a hero’s reception, Pollini generously fed us three encores, beginning with the waterfall of notes that is the Etude in C minor, Op.10/12, then moving to the relative calm of the D flat major Nocturne, Op.27/2. Then, as a handsome bonus, we had the Scherzo no.3 in C# minor, with its triumphant, Brahmsian chorale theme. After some nasty words were written about Pollini in the Spectator lately, this was the perfect riposte!

You can hear the music Maurizio Pollini played on a Spotify podcast, available here

Louis Schwizgebel

BBC Radio 3’s New Generation artist Louis Schwizgebel gives a live recital of piano works by Haydn, Chopin and Liszt

Louis SchwitzgebelPhoto © Caroline Doutre

Louis Schwizgebel – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 23 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 24 March

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

For those unable to hear the broadcast I have put together a Spotify playlist. Louis has not recorded this repertoire, so I have chosen suitable available versions:

What’s the music?

HaydnPiano Sonata in E flat major (1789-90) (19 minutes)

ChopinBallade no.3 in A flat major (1841) (7 minutes)

ChopinÉtude in C# minor (1836) (5 minutes)

ChopinWaltz in C# minor (1847) (4 minutes)

ChopinFantaisie-impromptu in C# minor (c1834) (4 minutes)

LisztConsolation no.3 in D flat major (1849-50) (4 minutes)

LisztHungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D flat major (c1863) (6 minutes)

What about the music?

This is a cleverly structured recital taking in three giants of the piano.

Schwizgebel begins with Haydn, godfather of so many musical forms – and one of the first composers to start writing what became known as the mature piano sonata, in three movements. His examples in the form – many written like this one for the palace of Esterházy in Hungary – show good humour and a delicate touch. This work, not often heard in concert, fits the bill nicely as an opening piece.

Schwizgebel’s Chopin selection is carefully structured so that the keys fit – moving from A flat major for the Ballade into C# minor for the three other works. The Ballade is a form in which Chopin made very personal expressions but which also allowed him the chance to experiment formally. The three works following are an unusually profound Etude (Study) – which sounds technical but is far from dry, shot through with characteristic Chopin melancholy. The Waltz is more playful, coming back to the same theme again and again, while the freeform Fantaisie-Impromptu makes the most of its freedom.

Liszt was a barnstorming virtuoso – the piano equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, you could say! – but he had his sensitive side too, as the Consolations show – and this one selected is a tribute to Chopin himself. It is a thoughtful example, leading to the fire and brimstone of the Hungarian Rhapsody no.6, given the natural inflections of the music of Liszt’s own country before a helter-skelter coda.

Performance verdict

Schwizgebel is a thoughtful Haydn pianist, and gives a rather touching performance of the slow movement in particular. He is commendably modest in performance, preferring not to go for the demonstrative approach, but instead letting his playing do the talking. The Chopin selection is excellent, very well played, losing a little rhythmic definition in the climax of the Étude but trumping that with a dazzling Fantaisie-impromptu.

The Liszt could perhaps have done with more of the reckless bravura you get in the Hungarian Rhapsodies, a sense of living right on the edge. That said, the closing pages are brilliantly played, the octaves written for the right hand immaculately delivered.

What should I listen out for?


4:19 – a matter-of-fact start to the first movement, with a slightly gruff accompaniment to the tune. Yet Haydn’s easy charm is soon in evidence, despite the left hand having to work pretty hard in accompaniment!

11:14 – the second movement begins, headed by a graceful melody, as if assigned to a singer. Then, later on, it nearly stops as the right hand melody gets lost in thought before ambling to an easy close.

19:46 – a typically perky Haydn finale, nicely proportioned and sensitively played here.


24:36 – the Ballade no.3 – beginning with an attractive introductory theme before the music assumes the profile of a waltz (from 26:27). Schwizgebel takes this slower than a lot of pianists, with a delicate approach – allowing greater contrast for then the music appears again, much more forcefully, at 27:20. At 29:35 a shadow falls over the music and it becomes more fraught as it moves into a minor key – C sharp minor, which is the key for the next three works in the recital. The Ballade’s main theme comes back at 30:57 before the closing passage.

31:52 – the Étude in C# minor, numbered 7 in the second book of studies Chopin published as his Op.25. The left hand takes the lead with a rising theme, and sets the melody throughout in what is a deeply intense piece, the longest of Chopin’s Études.

37:25 – the more playful Waltz in C# minor, published as Op.64/2, characterised by a sparkling theme high up in the piano’s register. This returns frequently to trump the underlying melancholy in the music, and the player has the chance to play around with the speed to give the music more ebb and flow. A contrasting section (38:28) brings a ray of light in the middle.

40:35 – the Fantaisie-Impromptu, a freeform piece where the floodgates just open! A torrent of notes form the main theme, wheeling up and down the keyboard, before taking the foot off the gas for a sweetly toned second theme (41:31)…which segues neatly back to the river of notes again (43:24)


46:02 – the Consolation in D flat major, one of a set of six. Intimate and romantic, especially in this performance.

50:07 – the Hungarian Rhapsody no.6 begins with a drone and a rustic tune, very controlled in this performance, which takes some nice liberties with the tempo, holding back where necessary. There is some dazzling virtuosity as the piano then unfurls a variation on that melody before a solemn second theme (51:50) makes itself known. At 54:01 the final section starts with a melody played in octaves, which soon works to a thunderous climax (55:33).


57:36 – Moszkowski’s Étincelles (1886) – a showpiece from the Polish composer, with some brilliant runs up and down the keyboard as well as some sharply pointed notes. Schwizgebel dispatches it very impressively, with a wonderful throw-away finish!

Want to hear more?

Haydn’s humour makes for lovely music to work to – and a personal favourite is his C major sonata.
Chopin’s Ballades reward repeated listening – so after the intimate Third I would recommend the stormier Fourth – with the calm of an A minor Waltz and the famous Raindrop prelude completing a very attractive selection.

For Liszt with real depth the Vallée d’Obermann can be strongly recommended as a powerful utterance.

All these are collected on a Spotify playlist, below the repertoire played by Schwizgebel:

For more concerts click here