Alice Sara Ott & Francesco Tristano

Scandale is the name of a new album recorded by pianist Alice Sara Ott and her colleague Francesco Tristano. While their choice of title is an allusion to the Russian impresario Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872–1929), they have no desire to view him or his era through a retrospective, idealistic haze.

Diaghilev was a man ahead of his time. With a finely tuned sense of the new, he chose to pick up the latest trends ignored by his contemporaries. He turned himself into the ambassador for Russian art in the West, and in 1909 founded the legendary Ballets Russes. Where others celebrated triumphs, he accumulated scandals. Heavily in debt — he was very dependent on Coco Chanel for financial backing — and perpetually on the edge of the abyss, he lived for art and music.

Diaghilev had a close working relationship with Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Many of the ballets he produced to their music caused public outrage. But Diaghilev the visionary knew that only in this way could his ambitious projects command universal attention.

“Back then people stood on their seats and booed”, enthuses Alice Ott. “That was what Diaghilev wanted — to move away from what was conventional and bourgeois. And that can definitely happen today too. We can demonstrate with these pieces that classical music is not as conservative as many people think.”

Francesco Tristano calls Diaghilev a fine producer in the modern sense. The Russian created the preconditions for revolutionary art. In an age where the concept of an underground culture did not yet exist, he unfailingly found sponsors, despite his financial issues, giving him relative independence from the commercial outcomes of his ventures — this at a time when the whole world was in a tailspin. Crises, says Tristano, always bring forth great art. With this in mind, the music associated with Diaghilev is, in his opinion, just as relevant today as Detroit techno or the current Spanish underground scene.

When Alice Sara Ott and Francesco Tristano come together to play the works on this album, pieces that have been performed a thousand times before, something miraculous happens. The music emerges wholly new, as if conceived at that exact moment.

“Music is timeless”, says Tristano, “but it also has the power to re-invent itself. Classical music functions differently from a lot of other musical genres. A rock group that just plays cover versions will hardly be known outside its own part of town. But with classical music, the same works are performed time after time. Why is that? I think it’s because the music continually redefines and adapts itself. I personally haven’t listened to two-piano recordings of Le Sacre du printemps, because I didn’t want to get immersed in one particular interpretation. But our version also sounds different simply because we’ve used the latest recording technology, not that of the 1970s. Classical music can only survive if it keeps on changing.”

Tristano and Ott succeed in showing the utmost respect for all the works they play, but at the same time move away from classical music’s instinctive reverence for the original and trust to their own vision. They both approach their instrument, the piano, from a dance perspective. Dance, like song, is an elemental language which requires no translation. For Tristano, who is involved not only with classical but also with many forms of contemporary electronic music, the dance-like character of the piano is a pivotal aspect of his playing. He feels certain that the sheer drive and physicality of Stravinsky’s compositions contributed in no small measure to the shock-effect of the music in its day.

Both pianists’ open-minded approach to the past relates to Diaghilev’s era as a whole, not just the ballets. With Ravel’s La Valse, they have a work in their repertoire which was not even performed by Diaghilev, Tristano suspecting that it was not provocative enough for the Russian. “But then we’re not representing Diaghilev’s interests here. We just love good music. And we perform the piece with a techno orientation rather than in the context of the Viennese waltz.”

As in the world of modern electronic music, where everything is defined by the mix and remix, Tristano and Ott reject the necessity for a definitive version. The piece is still the same piece, but it has a thousand different faces. Scandale is a pianistic conversation between two artists set against the varied backdrop of the music they love. While they play the works note for note, this conversation remains at every turn vivid and unexpected. Tristano and Ott qualify this as “freedom” — freedom for the material as well as for themselves. A new discovery, a sense of being caught up in the emotion of the moment.

“You don’t make a recording”, says Ott “to turn in something perfect, or to prove how it should be done. It’s about having fun with each other, and sharing good times.”

An original composition by Tristano forms the conclusion to this journey into Diaghilev’s world, standing in complete contrast to the three classical pieces. Tristano’s desire is not to compete with Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov or Ravel, but rather to add to the Russian and French influences on the CD a taste of his own idiom which, as he himself says, has been shaped not so much by his native Luxembourg, but by electronic music.

“I hope the groove of the closing work brings a kind of release for the listener after all the virtuoso fireworks. It ends with a fade-out which in itself brings a lightness with it. I’ve deliberately written a piece which doesn’t head in the direction of Stravinsky or Ravel, but is still connected to this programme, picking up on its dance-like energy.”

Scandale, for all its thematic allusions, neither begins with Diaghilev nor ends in the year 2014. What Alice Sara Ott and Francesco Tristano are engaging with is the spirit of provocation, something as old as art itself and which will always be the driving force behind any significant artistic movement.

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