Every year the international piano circus requires a new pin-up: last year’s was Yuja Wang, this year it’s Alice Sara Ott.
This 23-year-old German-Japanese had a charmed early life studded with competition triumphs which started when she was five, and her debut Liszt recording was a miraculous meld of power and precision. Her subsequent Cds of Chopin waltzes and Beethoven sonatas suggest her touch needs to mature a little.
This Southbank recital was her London solo debut. We knew from her concerto appearance at the Proms that she would play barefoot – for a better symbiosis with the pedals - but when she tripped onstage like a Vestal virgin in a skimpily-clinging white shift, one realised why the house was packed. The evening was a marketing triumph before she’d even played a note.
Her first foray had a bright playfulness which perfectly suited Mozart’s rarely-performed ‘Variations in D on a Minuet by Duport’. This late work runs the familiar Mozartian gamut of variation-moods, and Ott characterised each with coltish charm. Then came the ‘Sonata in C major Op2 No3’ with which the young Beethoven announced both his keyboard virtuosity and his ground-breaking originality as a composer. The first movement was smart as a whip, and the tumbling, somersaulting Scherzo was deft in the extreme, but the Adagio – one of those early middle movements which adumbrate the great slow movements of Beethoven’s maturity – made all the right gestures but somehow stayed detached, rather than getting inside the composer’s mind.
Ott revealed serious limitations with the Chopin Waltzes which opened the second half. The A flat major ‘Grande Valse Brillante’ had heel-clicking elegance, but the lovely A minor one which followed it was shorn of all its plangent poetry. The ‘Minute’ waltz was suitably frisky, but the ravishingly dreamy C sharp minor one turned out frisky too. Meanwhile Liszt’s ‘Harmonies du soir’ and ‘Chasse-neige’ – which ought to have been near-polar opposites – emerged alike over-pedalled, while his richly suggestive ‘Rigoletto’ paraphrase became a mere firework display. Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, her first encore, sounded oddly like Chopin; her second, Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’, was circus stuff. All fine in its way - and Lang Lang had better watch out - but for now this young woman’s artistry has a curiously Teflon quality.