Víkingur Ólafsson ~ From Afar

“Never meet your heroes”. If Víkingur Ólafsson had followed this advice, this gem of an album would have never come into existence. Having loved the music of György Kurtág since his father handed him a record when he was youngster the 1990s, Ólafsson was unexpectedly invited to meet the 96-year old composer, a meeting so filled with music, insight and inspiration that it left him feeling revitalised. As he writes in the liner notes:

“…the evening in Budapest stayed with me. I felt like I had been reacquainted with some musical essence, and it gave me a feeling of lightness and joy. Wanting to write him a letter to thank him, I found myself at the piano instead, drawing up a map of works with Kurtág’s own music as a compass. The result is this album.”

On the face of it, the composers included in this collection have more contrasts than commonalities, but those familiar with Ólafsson’s 2020 album Debussy • Rameau will know that he’s unafraid of making apparently unconventional combinations work. The two French composers that formed the focus of the album share little beyond their nationality, separated as they are by centuries (Rameau composing before the piano was even invented), but Ólafsson’s brilliance made the album feel like an organic whole, revealing unexpected similarities and delightful contrasts. If anything the pianist’s achievement here is even more impressive, because the album is so coherent, despite featuring music from nine different composers ranging from J.S. Bach via Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, Sigvaldi Kaldalóns and Béla Bartók to contemporaries like Kurtág, Thomas Adès, Snorri Sigfús Birgisson. There are various threads that tie the album together: the counterpoint of Bach and Schumann’s loving emulations thereof; the folksongs of Ólafsson and Kurtág’s Icelandic and Hungarian homelands; sleep, and its cousin death; nature in general, birds in particular. Deeper than that, there’s something about Ólafsson’s inspired playing that reveals more subtle connections; his interpretations seem to draw an apparently disparate collection together, as if weaving a tapestry with beautiful contrasting threads.

One particularly intriguing aspect of the album is that we can hear it in two versions, Ólafsson recorded it not only on the typical Steinway grand but also on an upright piano with felt. On the one hand, the latter is an acknowledgement of the massive audience for this style of recording; on the other, it is entirely in keeping with the concept of the album for Kyrtág and his late pianist wife Márta recorded Bach-transcriptions and pieces from Játétok on felted upright with, quoting Ólafsson’s liner notes again, “marvellous results”. The album is presented with the grand piano recordings first, the upright recordings second but the very existence of both  creates the possibility for another enjoyable listening experience: playing the two recordings of the same piece one after another. In that way, as in many others, this is a wonderful, multi-faceted listen and its tender lyricism and first-class musicianship will no doubt earn it many plaudits. Highly recommended. (Garreth Brooke)

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