Mozart & Contemporaries

Víkingur Ólafsson

(LP - Deutsche Grammophon #B003424901)

Review by James Manheim

Pianist Vikingur Ólafsson has been called the Icelandic Glenn Gould, as much for his temperament as for his playing, and many of his recordings have been innovative and even experimental. He has recorded adaptations of Bach with Icelandic electronic musicians, for example. Compared with such outings, an album called Mozart & Contemporaries may seem to be a return to convention, but a few minutes of sampling will reveal that it is not at all. Ólafsson assembles a unique program from exquisitely careful and detailed Mozart performances, sonatas by a pair of unusual contemporaries, and an ordering of the whole that brings the listener into a rarefied world. The largest work on the program is the Piano Sonata in C minor, K. 457, which the pianist likens to a three act opera, and convincingly delivers on his premise, but the smaller pieces are even better. Ólafsson offers two of the really wildly experimental works of Mozart's last years, the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, and the Kleine Gigue, K. 574; the latter piece in Ólafsson's hands has real strangeness. The Mozart contemporaries included are Haydn and two more that are not so commonly heard (although a hundred years ago they were among the few whose names would have been recognized), Domenico Cimarosa and Baldassare Galuppi. Cimarosa wrote 88 keyboard sonatas that are very rarely played, and the ones here reflect his background as an opera composer; the sense of drama is heightened by slight pianistic modifications from Ólafsson. He contributes these to the Mozart Piano Sonata in C major, K. 545, the "sonata facile," as well, and it may be that this is not an album for historical purists. It may also be that Ólafsson comes closer to the resonances this music would have had in its own time than a dozen more circumspect performances would have.