Ólafsson recreates Mozart’s world in Carnegie Hall debut

Wed Feb 23, 2022 at 1:51 pm
By George Grella
Vikingur Ólafsson performed Tuesday night in Zankel Hall. Photo: Stephanie Berger

There were many things going at pianist Vikingur Ólafsson’s Tuesday night recital in Zankel Hall. One was Ólafsson’s Carnegie debut, a big deal for any musician by itself, and one that the pianist said he had been waiting 20 years for, since he first enrolled at Juilliard. (There he studied with Jerome Lowenthal, now 90, and in attendance.). This was a big deal for the audience too, as Ólafsson is one of the most compelling musicians on the current classical scene.

The other was the unusual and fascinating program. Ólafsson played mostly Mozart, and short pieces from the composer’s contemporaries. On its face, nothing out of the ordinary, but “Mozart and his Contemporaries” is not only the title of the pianist’s latest Deutsche Grammophon album; it represented the evening’s program with Ólafsson playing the exact same contents and sequence in the concert as on the album. 

That’s the kind of thing one associates with fledgling pop groups, not with a musician who has put out a series of albums that pair great beauty and deep intellect. But unlike a band trying to recreate what they had done in the studio, this concert was an opportunity to hear a musician deliver different ideas and produce different experiences, to hear the many varied depths of both the music and the performer. In short, this was great artistry.

Ólafsson is one of the most thoughtful of classical musicians. That can imply a technical, unfeeling sense, but this musician was literally thinking of how the classical era came to be, with Mozart hearing and responding to the work of composers he admired, like C.P.E. Bach and Haydn, and by playing their music, and short pieces from Cimarosa and Baldassare Galuppi.

Speaking to the audience with relaxed, convivial charm, he offered the notion of Mozart as a pre-Beethoven in mood and manner. This is decidedly not the case with the album, but the riches of the music, excavated by the pianist’s thinking culminated in an astounding and intense performance of Mozart’s great C-minor Piano Sonata No. 14, K. 457. The preceding music created an aural diorama of musical Europe in the 1780s and charted a Mozart journey, pressed on by his peers, from classical invention to a kind of primal, quasi-unbalanced expression.

Ólafsson played two continuous sets, with a break for intermission. The first half outlined his concept. As with the album, he began with the Andante spiritoso from Galuppi’s Keyboard Sonata in F minor. Though a popular dramatist in his day, Galuppi is now essentially an unknown, and this was the first time this piece—gorgeous, sophisticated and emotionally complex—had ever been heard in Carnegie Hall.

Ólafsson has the kind of touch that articulates each note no matter how legato the phrasing or how much sustain pedal he’s using. He projected the feeling from the first note of the Andante spiritoso he had the last note in sight, and that he could also see his way to the end of the first half, through Rondos from Mozart and C.P.E. Bach, Cimarosa’s Keyboard Sonatas in D minor and A minor, Haydn’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Hob. XVI:32, to Mozart’s C Major Sonata, K. 545.

The emphasis on minor keys was telling, not just creating a mood against which Mozart’s Rondos in F Major and D Major sounded backlit, but in the way Ólafsson played the music so that the tonalities felt truly unstable. This is a rarity—ears have been trained for centuries to experience a satisfying finality in minor keys, which fundamentally should feel like there is something else to say, something else to resolve. That was most evocative and intellectually intense in Mozart’s astonishing and unfinished Fantasy in D minor, K. 397. The performance had a spellbinding freedom and an emotive naturalness that made the stark shifts from contemplative sorrow to spiky, extroverted interjections musically and emotionally logical.

After a toccata-like interpretation of Mozart’s Gigue, K. 574, Ólafsson played K.545, the “Sonata facile,” at an extremely fast tempo. He had earlier remarked how when he was a child he found the music too frustrating to play, and added that “Mozart’s genius makes you aware of your own imperfections.” Ólafsson’s playing was so skillful, energetic, graceful, and intelligent, that one could indeed hear minor imperfections, like one note in the left hand he played at a dynamic a little too varied from the rest. That one was able to register such a detail was because his playing was so deeply compelling. 

After intermission, he played his own arrangement of the Adagio from Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, K. 516, then another Galuppi movement, then the K. 457 Sonata. That last was the climax of the concert—Ólafsson cooled things down with Mozart’s B minor Adagio, K. 540 and Lizst’s transcription of Ave verum corpus. If the first half was the massive foundation of a pyramid, the second was the thrilling point to it all. Again, there was the large-scale minor key feeling washed away by the gentle ending. There was a gentle beginning as well, and the path to what Ólafsson had stated, that he felt Mozart, the prodigy, “really was a late bloomer.”

After his tumultuous, gripping performance of K. 457, one was a believer. Ólafsson played with such intellectual and physical power that the music exploded with Mozart’s sturm und drang. This was indeed Mozart as proto-romantic, describing inner turmoil and mystery through musical gestures.

At every cadence, Ólafsson banged out the chord then took a moment to listen to the dissonant overtones decaying from the strings. This was no effect—the pianist played at the edge of control, but with purpose and meaning, in this case that Mozart is not just consonant and pretty. The sheer excitement of the opening movement ended in incredible, snake-like articulation of the sinuous phrases in the coda. The Adagio was dignified, but still uneasy, with a deep interiority. One usually wants to hear the singing quality in Mozart—instead, Ólafsson played the final movement percussively, unexpected yet completely in tune with his conception.

The pianist’s encore settled the evening with lovely, peaceful finality: he played August Stradel’s transcription of the Andante from Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4. This is stately, humane music that Ólafsson delivered with palpable feeling for the plain beauty of how the notes flowed and harmonies shifted.

Daniil Trifonov plays Szymanowski, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Brahms, 8 p.m., March 3. carnegiehall.org

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS