Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson impresses in his New York Philharmonic debut

United StatesUnited States Various: Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), New York Philharmonic / Stéphane Denève (conductor). Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, New York, 26.11.2022. (RP)

Stéphane Denève conducts the NY Philharmonic and pianist Víkingur Ólafsson © Chris Lee

Guillaume Connesson – ‘Céléphaïs’ (from Les cités de Lovecraft, New York Philharmonic premiere)
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major; Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2
Roussel Bacchus et Ariane Suite No.2, Op.43

Strong French winds blew through David Geffen Hall this week with Stéphane Denève conducting the New York Philharmonic in the music of Connesson, Ravel and Roussel. Many in the audience, including this reviewer, are still marveling at the hall’s physical transformation due to the recently unveiled restoration, and gauging the acoustics. One thing is certain, as this concert revealed, there is warmth, resonance and a presence to the sound, especially for solo instruments, that is marvelous.

Denève opened the concert with ‘Céléphaïs’, the first movement of Connesson’s Les cités de Lovecraft. Connesson is one of the most widely performed French composers today. His Les cités de Lovecraft was a co-commission of the Orchestre National de Lyon and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, which premiered it in 2017. The work was inspired by the writings of American author H. P. Lovecraft, a pioneer of what is now known as weird fiction.

Connesson has been intrigued by Lovecraft since he was a teenager, when he first attempted to musically depict the author’s fantasy worlds. Lovecraft used his dreams as the basis for some of his stories and, in Les cités de Lovecraft, Connesson chose three of the author’s dream locales as the basis of this poem. Only the first movement was performed – ‘Céléphaïs’ – which Lovecraft described as a city of glittering minarets, blue waters, onyx pavements and orchid-wreathed priests.

These fantastic images inspired Connesson to musically paint Céléphaïs in a dazzling array of melody and color. Denève led the NY Philharmonic in a performance of this scintillating music that was stunning for its textural clarity and brilliance. Wave after wave of sound, ranging from brass fanfares to shimmering cascades from the harp and celesta, swept over the audience. It is music that is obviously close to Denève’s heart, as he cradled the score in his arm and patted it when acknowledging the audience’s applause.

The concert brought the eagerly anticipated NY Philharmonic debut of Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. Born in Reykjavík, Ólafsson studied at the Juilliard School, which is across the street from David Geffen Hall. Named Artist of the Year by Grammophon in 2019, Ólafsson’s recordings have had over 260 million streams. For this debut he chose Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.

The orchestral playing was superb, from the concerto’s opening crack of a musical whip to the cascade of colors that concludes it. The most compelling music making, however, was Ólafsson’s playing in the middle movement. The beautiful, lyrical lines that he spun transfixed the audience and stillness reigned in the hall. This is one of the highest compliments an audience can pay an artist, and it is seldom experienced.

Ólafsson played two encores, the Bach/Siloti Prelude in B minor and Rameau’s ‘Le Rappel des Oiseaux’. In introducing the former, the pianist remarked that something calmer was needed after the exuberant ending of the Ravel concerto, and he was right. Ólafsson performed the Prelude with pristine tone, impeccable technique and the utmost sensitivity. The Rameau was somewhat more raucous as Ólafsson imitated bird calls with charm and bravura.

In the second half of the concert, Denève and the orchestra gave exuberant accounts of Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane Suite No.2 and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2. Although cut from different musical cloth, the two suites are alike in the energy, brilliance and drama that each composer brought to his musical depictions of Greek myths.

Albert Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane premiered in 1931, and the ballet owes an obvious debt to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. With the urging of conductor Pierre Monteux, as well as his assistance, Roussel extracted two suites from the ballet. For the second one, he chose three movements chronicling Ariadne’s awakening, her realization that Theseus has abandoned her and her union with Bacchus.

Ravel had given the same treatment to his 1912 ballet, which was based on the story of Daphnis, a goatherd, and Chloé, a shepherdess who was abducted by pirates. The music of the second suite is derived from the ballet’s third act and depicts Daphnis’ dream, Chloé’s rescue and their reunion.

Denève and the orchestra instilled the opening with sensuality and vibrancy. Once again, the quieter moments were among the most beguiling. Of particular note was the opportunity to hear Cynthia Phelps, principal viola, in the Roussel, and the playful, seductive playing of Robert Langevin, principal flutist, in the Ravel.

The orchestra and the new hall’s acoustics played their part in making this concert so memorable, but as much, if not more, of the credit goes to Denève. His joy in making music is obvious. A concert that had the potential to be overindulgent turned out instead to be a celebration of excess at its best, due to Denève’s passion for the music and ability to convey it.

Rick Perdian

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