Víkingur Ólafsson

Philip Glass: Piano Works

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The piano etudes of Philip Glass were, like 19th century examples of the form, technical studies. Glass, in fact, wrote them over two decades as a way of improving his own piano skills. Yet they are also, like Chopin's etudes, little compositional studies that establish a set of parameters and explore it in a basic way. They offer an excellent way to come to grips with Glass' musical language, and they reveal the personalities of their performers more than do most of his other compositions. Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson emerged to acclaim as part of a joint recital of all 20 etudes in at the Barbican in London, and his work here fulfills the promise shown. After an overture from Glassworks (1981), Ólafsson launches into a sequence of 11 etudes. He doesn't follow the original ordering, but this is all to the good: the Glass etudes are self-contained pieces, and his progression is convincing. Ólafsson's touch is light, sweeping, dreamy, and evocative of the mystical side of the composer's personality. He catches the logic of each etude as it unfolds the implications of the very simple material with which it begins. And he makes an unusual decision: one etude, and the opening Glassworks excerpt in a return appearance as a postlude, are "reworked" by Christian Badzura with the addition of a part for string quartet. Ólafsson's own notes don't offer any justification for this, and the forces in Glass' music are less optional than in that of his contemporaries. But it's strangely compelling, and after the especially lush "Étude No. 20" (as good a place as any to start sampling), the addition of the string quartet to the Glassworks music seems to take the mood to a higher plane. This is a very fine Glass recording, beautifully engineered in an Icelandic hall.

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