An Enthralling London Debut Recital by Vikingur Ólafsson

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Chopin, Brahms: Vikingur Ólafsson (piano), St John’s, Smith Square, London, 15.11.2017. (CC)

Bach – Partita No.6 in E minor BWV830
Chopin – Études: Nouvelle Étude No.1 Op. posth; Op.25/2; Op.10/9. Ballade No.4 in F minor Op.52
Brahms – Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor Op.5

Amazingly, this was Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólasson’s first recital in London. His rise in the public consciousness has been rapid: he signed for the Yellow Label, DG, almost exactly a year ago. Already, though, his debut recording of music by Philip Glass, a composer with whom he is closely associated, has created quite some waves (review). The pre-concert talk was illuminating, Ólafsson revealing himself to be amiable, modest and of questing spirit. He is synaesthetic (he hears in colours), is director of two festivals (Reykjavik Midsummer and Sweden’s Vinterfest, having taken over from Martin Fröst) and he studied at the Juilliard School with Jerome Lowenthal and Robert McDonald.

There was no Glass this time but instead a cunningly plotted evening, mainly in F minor. The exception was Bach’s Sixth Partita, a semitone out in E minor. This is a grand, seven-movement work whose rigour clearly appealed to Ólafsson (the prevailing impression of the pre-concert talk had been one of high intelligence). Embracing the modern piano as just that, Ólafsson found myriad colour and expression, from the fluidity of the Allemande to the organ-like sonorities of the opening Toccata or the terrific finger-evenness of the Corrente. The angular theme of the concluding Gigue hopped about like a flea; at times in this movement, too, Ólafsson seemed to aim to invoke the pealing of bells.

Even finer was Ólafsson’s Chopin. A quartet of F minor pieces began with the first Nouvelle Étude (1839), a terrific marriage of study with imagination, followed by the F minor offerings from Opp. 25 and 10 respectively, the former nimble, the second its polar opposite, the line almost but not quite over-emphasised. Finally for the first half, the more extended Fourth Ballade (1842/3). Ólafsson’s relatively low-pedal approach to Chopin works wonders in elucidating key textures and voice-leading; the whole was expertly shaped.

Post-interval, it was Brahms’ mighty F minor Sonata of 1853, and Ólafsson’s actual piano sound changed completely – and appositely – the bass burnished and full. And yet the clarity of line that had been constant in the Bach and the Chopin was present here, too, with every strand impeccably defined. The central trio of movements (Andante espressivoScherzoIntermezzo (Rückblick)) were perfectly conveyed, the central Scherzo a study in wild abandon. With daringly sparing pedal, Ólafsson seemed to seek to make parallels with Schumann’s Carnaval here before entering into the barren world of the Intermezzo. The finale, again characterised by supremely intelligent playing, crowned a fine performance of this magnificent work.

There were two encores, Rameau’s intriguing Le rappel des oiseaux – a piece in E minor, hearkening back to the first piece of the programme); interestingly, emil Gilels recorded this piece. We also heard a lachrymose Chopin Mazurka Op.63/2, one of the composer’s last pieces, perhaps unsurprisingly in F minor.

In that pre-concert event, Ólafsson referred to his next DG recording, due in 2018, of Bach’s reworkings of Vivaldi and Marcello and a world premiere of Ólafsson’s own transcription of a Bach Cantata. Consider my appetite, at least, thoroughly whetted.

Colin Clarke

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