Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has been called “Iceland’s Glenn Gould” and the description of this 37 year old piano virtuoso, is somewhat fitting. Ólafsson is equally at home playing music of contemporary composers such as Daniel Bjarson and Phillip Glass, as he is playing the music of Bach and Rameau. Like Gould, Ólafsson is also not afraid to take advantage of what can be done in the recording process to create the maximum benefit for the listener. This combination of supreme mastery at the piano by Ólafsson and excellent recording quality, make for CDs that habitually win awards and make listeners eagerly anticipate Víkingur Ólafsson next recording project.
In September, Ólafsson released his fourth recording on the Deutsche Grammaphon record label called “Mozart and Contemporaries.” The project depicts Mozart as a true revolutionary composer, and juxtaposes his music from the 1780’s with that of music from his contemporaries, such as Haydn, CPE Bach and also composers from farther afield such as Galuppi, and Cimerosa.
"I wanted this album to be a snapshot of the 1780s which, for me, is one of the most incredible periods in music history,” states Ólafsson. “I’m trying to show on this album that he became the Mozart we know in the last 10 years of his life. He changed his music so passionately. From year to year to piece to piece he’s making these big experiments and he is pushing the boundaries and limits of structure of form of convention. He’s using and working with tradition but always finding a twist on it.”
The thesis that Ólafsson is making is completely backed up by this recording. There are two complete Mozart piano sonatas on the album and a Haydn keyboard sonata, but there are also smaller compositions from Mozart, as well as music from his more obscure contemporaries that help to make Ólafsson's point.
There is one particular track on “Mozart and Contemporaries” that Ólafsson says is the key to the whole album. Mozart’s Kleine Gigue K 574 lasts just 1 minute and 40 seconds, but really serves as the seed of inspiration. “He wrote that Gigue when he was in Leipzig…he wanted to be close to Bach’s grave in St. Thomas Church, and so he writes the Gigue in one day. This whole album would have been impossible had he not encountered the music of Bach by coincidence in 1781; when the album begins. In the last ten years of his life everything changes in Mozart because of Bach I believe… the influence of Bach on Mozart’s music is immense.”
Ólafsson has written some of his own arrangements for this project. There are some harmonizations and re-workings of music by Cimerosa, as well as his arrangement of the Adagio movement from Mozart’s third String Quintet in G minor.
With this CD “Mozart and Contemporaries” Víkingur Ólafsson has recorded another truly remarkable album. Mozart as the revolutionary composer is perfectly portrayed on this disc. Thesis aside, the sheer beauty of Ólafsson’s playing makes this disc truly a must have for any lover of the music of Mozart.
To see Chris Wolf conversation with Víkingur Ólafsson click here: