Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson makes his Edinburgh International Festival debut with the Bergen Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2022 [5] – Ravel, R. Schumann, Rachmaninov: Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Usher Hall, 15.8.2022. (SRT)

Víkingur Ólafsson, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic © Ryan Buchanan

RavelLa Valse

R. Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54

RachmaninovSymphonic Dances

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra have been the stars of the Edinburgh International Festival’s first full weekend with a storming concert performance of Salome on Sunday night. After Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, the dance theme continued in this concert with two of the twentieth century’s most subversive dance settings.

In the case of both Ravel’s La Valse and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the orchestra used the dance element as a hook on which to hang some pretty remarkable playing, showcasing the colour and energy of which they are capable. The opening of La Valse seemed to crawl out of the primordial soup, but once it took form the music steered a clever path between glamour and schmaltz. Edward Gardner, the orchestra’s Chief Conductor, shaped the sound as though decadent grandeur could be glimpsed through clouds of mist, but it was never merely episodic: there was always a sense that this music was going somewhere, and the swirling engine of destruction seemed to take hold of the music relatively early in its journey.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances were also shaped with an ear to the dance rhythm, but the structure was deeper, the energy tighter than ‘mere’ dance music. In the opening movement, for example, the faster sections seemed guided by something primal and deep, like the shifting of tectonic plates, but the slower music had a gorgeous veneer to it, led by the sultry saxophone solo and gorgeously rich strings in the second theme. Those strings sounded just as great in the dusky waltz of the second movement, and the final married seriousness of purpose to huge energy, with a macabre playfulness that build up a terrific head of drama.

Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto saw a much smaller orchestra, playing with vigorous but buoyant energy. The star turn was from pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, however, making his festival debut. He is a fascinating artist, as interesting to watch as to hear. He bounded onto the stage like a ball of energy, but as soon as he sat down at the keyboard a meditative stillness came over his playing that made Schumann’s music sing. With poetic phrasing and effortless legato, the whole concerto felt like an inward meditation, gorgeously soft in the first movement’s recapitulation. There then came a lovely gentleness to the Intermezzo that bubbled over into a finale that, while ebullient, retained a sense of calm in the celebration. For his encore he played three folk songs by Bartók, gorgeous in their songful simplicity. In a concert full of ‘Wow!’ moments, this was the gentlest.

Simon Thompson

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 28th August at a variety of venues across the city. Click here for details.

1 thought on “Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson makes his Edinburgh International Festival debut with the Bergen Philharmonic”

  1. Thanks Simon, what an excellent review. The Bergen Phil has long been a star orchestra, and they brought their style and sophistication to this programme, in spades. For me, the highlight was the Rachmaninov. It is a piece charged with nostalgia; the strings really were in their element through the songful passages. A key moment in any performance of the Symphonic Dances is the tam-tam at the very end. There are differences of opinion about how this should be played. Here I loved that Edward Garnder directed his percussionist to allow the final note to naturally resonate and fade, rather than be dampened. I could feel the vibrations all the way at the top of the upper circle. It was indeed a “wow” moment. I just wish the audience had held their applause for a couple of seconds, but I realise it was one of the moments where euphoria erupted. Thanks for a great record of this superb concert.

    For those who want more from Bergen, they have an excellent CD on Bis with the Symphonic Dances, conducted by Andrew Litton.
    In addition, the concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast sometime in the autumn. It is one to look out for!


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