Sunday, May 14, 2023

Víkingur Ólafsson's Mozart & Contemporaries Recital

Last Tuesday, San Francisco Performances presented the 39-year-old Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson in a live performance at Herbst Theater of his bestselling Deutsche Grammophon album from last year, Mozart & Contemporaries.
My friend James Parr is an Ólafsson groupie who recently became an enthusiast after obsessively listening to the pianist's Debussy Rameau album. Ólafsson's interests and repertory range all over the place, from J.S. Bach to Philip Glass, whose music he has also recorded.
Last June with the San Francisco Symphony, he gave a dynamite performance of John Adams's fiendishly difficult new piano concerto, Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes?, and it was obvious he was a technical wizard but that doesn't necessarily mean somebody can play Mozart well.
It turned out that Ólafsson, in his first San Francisco recital, plays Mozart very well. However, the evening itself was strange and something of an endurance test for both performer and audience. When Ólafsson performed this program at Carnegie Hall in February, according to Zachary Woolfe's review in the NY Times, there was an intermission, but somewhere along the way in performances across the country, it vanished. The music was from the last decade of Mozart's life interspersed with contemporaneous piano pieces by Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Cimarosa, and Galuppi. Even though there was a printed program, we were lost early and so was most of the audience, because Ólafsson's playing was so idiosyncratic in his pauses between the 14 pieces, sometimes barely a breath and other times a limb-stretching minute. This was also true for his rests between musical phrases and sonata movements, so when we finally did get back on track, it was with a keener level of concentration.
Still, listening to 90 straight minutes of piano music from the 1780s does put one in a sort of trancelike state, and I found myself more than once floating away dreamily into all kinds of interesting places. Even though this was a note-for-note reprise of his already streaming recording, the live performance was completely different, according to James, intensely personal and exploratory. It was a memorable night.

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