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From Afar
Vikingur Ólafsson (piano)
rec. 2022, Harpa Concert House, Reykjavik
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4861681 [2 CDs: 103]

It was going to happen sooner or later: Vikingur Olafsson’s remarkable run of outstanding releases was going to come to an end. Ólafsson’s pianism has always flirted with tipping over into the precious on previous releases but too often on this new collection I found myself feeling he had gone too far. Make no mistake it is piano playing of rare, often startling refinement but the moment when it crossed the line for me was in the limpid middle section of the Brahms E major Intermezzo Op116 No.4. Of course, the sounds emanating from the piano are as pellucid as anyone could wish but that great, noble melody isn’t it just a bit affected? Volodos, in his rightly celebrated late Brahms recital, is just as fastidious in terms of technical proficiency but there isn’t a trace of the foppish. I found myself thinking that I was listening to Ólafsson rather than Brahms.

To put this is in one sort of perspective, Ólafsson has always had this sort of tendency but on previous releases devoted to Bach, Mozart or Glass, it has always been deployed as a means to open up new vistas on familiar music. Sad to say this account of the Brahms had me thinking of the likes of Lang Lang at their most self indulgent. Further on in the disc, the Brahms E minor intermezzo Op116 No. 5 is given an even more ungainly outing.

A second perspective is that this isn’t an isolated example. The recital starts with a Kurtág Bach arrangement that is positively drowning in pedal. I presume that this is written in the score but it sets the tone for a recital that seems more about ‘look at the clever things I can get a piano to do’ than any deeper values. It is hard to recall, listening to this opening, that Ólafsson is one of the great Bach pianists of our day. Later on, we do get some vintage Ólafsson Bach but too little too late for me.

The recital is not helped by recurring snippets of not particularly interesting pieces by Kurtág, most of them so brief as to barely register. Devotees of the Hungarian composer will doubtless be delighted at such high profile exposure for their hero. Grouchily, I found my fairly low opinion of him confirmed. Worse, it cemented the sense that what Ólafsson was really interested in was sound effects on the piano rather like the numerous remixes of his recordings of which he is so fond.

As if to confirm this impression, this album comes into two versions – one recorded on a concert grand and the other on an upright piano. Ólafsson has done this sort of thing before – on his recent Debussy recording, for example- and as a kind of digital footnote to a main release it has a certain fascination but I didn’t feel the insights justified such a protracted trip down memory lane (the piano is meant to evoke the old piano he had in his bedroom as a child).

With a pianist of this class, there are of course lots of extremely good things on this record. The Mozart transcription is up to the standards of his recent set devoted to him and his contemporaries. The febrile, nervy character of Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet from Waldszenen suits Olafsson’s rarified manner to a T – perhaps an idea for his next project? I found myself speculating that he needs a composer focus to keep that drift toward a little navel gazing at bay?

What the listener will get here is a remarkable exhibition of sophisticated piano playing but not really enough of anything else in a rather bitty programme. I will probably file this away as a rare misfire and look forward to Ólafsson’s next release and hopefully a triumphant return to form.

David McDade
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Christe, du Lamm Gottes BWV 619 (arr. György Kurtág)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Study in Canonic Form op. 56/1
Johann Sebastian Bach
Adagio from Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3 in C major BWV 1005 (arr. Víkingur Ólafsson)
György Kurtág (b.1926)
Harmonica (Hommage ŕ Borsody László) (from Játékok, Book 3)
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
3 Hungarian Folk Songs from Csík Sz. 35a
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in E major op. 116/4
György Kurtág
A Voice in the Distance (from Játékok, Book 5)
Snorri Sigfús Birgisson (b.1954)
Where Life and Death May Dwell (Icelandic folk song)
Johann Sebastian Bach
Allegro moderato from Trio Sonata No. 1 in E flat major BWV 525 (arr. György Kurtág) feat. Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir
Sigvaldi Kaldalóns (1881-1946)
Ave María (arr. Víkingur Ólafsson)
György Kurtág
Little Chorale (from Játékok, Book 1)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Laudate Dominum
(arr. Víkingur Ólafsson)
György Kurtág
Sleepily (from Játékok, Book 1)
Robert Schumann
Träumerei op. 15/7
György Kurtág
Flowers We Are (from Játékok, Book 5)
Thomas Adčs (b.1971)
The Branch (Az Ág)
György Kurtág
Twittering (from Játékok, Book 1) feat. Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir
Robert Schumann
Vogel als Prophet op. 82/7
Johannes Brahms
Intermezzo in E minor op. 116/5
György Kurtág
Scraps of a Colinda Melody – Faintly Recollected
(Hommage ŕ Farkas Ferenc) (from Játékok, Book 3)
(This entire programme is then recorded on an upright piano)

Published: October 28, 2022

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