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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Mozart & Contemporaries

Vikingur Olafsson (piano)
rec. 5-9 April 2021 Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Also available on vinyl
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 0525 [83:48]

For me, as for a lot of people, Vikingur Olafsson made it to the top of the pianistic tree on the back of two remarkable releases, one of Philip Glass’ piano music - review - and the other a carefully curated disc of Bach in all shapes and sizes (4835022). I did seem to be the only person on the planet who was a little underwhelmed by his recording pairing Rameau and Debussy, finding it a little chilly in places (4837701). I did give a much warmer welcome to the spin-off disc from that set realised earlier this year entitled Reflections which contained an excellent version of Pour Le Piano.

With this CD of Mozart and near contemporaries, Olafsson roars back to the form that made his Bach recital of 2018 one of the must have releases of that year. Even if he were a mediocre pianist, I suspect his ability to curate a programme on disc would set Olafsson apart and this record is as good an example of his skill in this department as any. But, of course, he is the antithesis of mediocrity and this new recording shows off his rare talents exceptionally well.

The fineness of touch Olafsson displays is extraordinary even in a generation of pianists I believe as good as any of the past. At times I wondered whether there was a risk of it becoming a little precious, but such is the intensity of Olafsson’s laser-like focus that it never does. Well, some may argue that the glacially slow speed for the Liszt arrangement of the Ave Verum is over the top but who really cares with sounds this beautiful?

It is just as well that Olafsson’s touch is so fine, as DG’s recording, whilst full bodied, is very close, leaving the pianist nowhere to hide. This seems to be how the Icelandic pianist likes it, as it is typical of his recordings generally.

Olafsson is unafraid of taking creative risks. Galuppi, a name I only knew from learning the piano, is remade in his hands from an also-ran to an important precursor of Haydn and Mozart – who knew? He finds equally unexpected emotional depths in the keyboard music of Cimarosa as well as links to the mature piano music of Mozart.

Olafsson clearly leans toward the darker end of Mozart’s music. His lovely arrangement of the slow movement of the great G minor string quintet holds beauty and pain in almost perfect balance. The towering B minor Adagio, K540, is a fitting climax to the album and is given a performance that pushes the emotion as far as it can go without distortion.

The weak point of the album, for me at least, was a rather slick but superficial reading of Haydn’s B minor piano sonata. The agility of Olafsson’s fingers is dazzling but it feels a little heartless in a way nothing else on this wondrous collection does. Compare this account to Roman Rabinovich’s recording which I recently reviewed for this site and a whole world of passion and wit heaves into view. This seems particularly strange given the fantasy and sense of the Gothic, Olafsson finds in his version of D minor Fantasia, K397, which he plays in its original fragmentary form.

The other big piece included is the C minor sonata and this is Olafsson’s pianism at its best. I have got so used to hearing him in bits and pieces, on record at least, that it was a joy to hear him taking on something more substantial. The first point to make, and this isn’t a backhanded compliment, is that he doesn’t overcook things, though it does continue his rather cavalier approach to repeats – for artistic reasons or simply to cram in more goodies? The second point to be made, with some relief, is that he resists the temptation to turn this into Beethoven. He finds, for example, a surprising and welcome amount of playfulness in the outer movements. Despite its being written in 1784, my mind kept drifting to Così when listening to Olafsson’s immaculate rendition of the slow movement. It is typical of the album as a whole in the way it got me to listen to very familiar music in a new and exciting way.

If this isn’t one of the piano highlights of the year I will be flabbergasted. Music making of this magnitude is a rare and wonderful thing and my time is better deployed urging the reader to stop reading my eulogies to it and get listening.

David McDade

Baldassare GALUPPI (1706-1785)

Andante spiritoso from Piano Sonata No.9 in F minor [2:05]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Rondo in F major, K494 [6:05]
Carl Philipp Emmanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Rondo II in D minor, H290 [3:26]
Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801)
Sonata No.42 in D minor, arr. Vikingur Olafsson [2:24]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Fantasia in D minor, K397 (Fragment) [5:47]
Rondo in D major, K485 [3:46]
Sonata No.55 in A minor, arr. Vikingur Olafsson [2:44]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata No.47 in B minor [7:54]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Kleine Gigue in G major, K574 [1:40]
Piano Sonata No.16 in C major “Sonata facile”, K545 [8:43]
Adagio in E flat major from String Quintet No.3 in G minor, K516, arr Víkingur Ólafsson [8:04]
Baldassare GALUPPI
Larghetto from Piano Sonata No. 34 in C minor [3:07]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Piano Sonata No.14 in C minor, K457 [16:38]
Adagio in B minor, K540 [7:34]
Ave Verum Corpus, K618 transcription: Franz Liszt [4:02]

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