Deutsche Grammophon 00289 481 1681 (vikingurolafsson.com)
Award-winning Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson (b.1984), dubbed “Iceland’s Glenn Gould” by The New York Times, is well known for his challenging programming. His 22-track (times two) double album From Afar is no exception, revealing his eclecticism in surprising and satisfying ways.
As he recounts in the booklet, Ólafsson’s album project was the result of a chance encounter with nonagenarian Hungarian composer György Kurtág. It turned out to be an impromptu, life-changing, private recital for Ólafsson. The wide-ranging program on this album is his thank-you note, pivoting on several Kurtág piano works, both original compositions and arrangements of Bach keyboard opuses. Another novel aspect of the record is that the entire recital is played twice. CD 1 features a Steinway grand, while on CD 2 Ólafsson plays an upright piano with felt covering the strings, rendering a permanent soft pedal effect. Thus, two contrasting sound worlds are evoked from the same repertoire: the public concert hall, and the intimate living room. Interestingly, I often preferred the upright performances.
In addition to Kurtág, Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Bartók and others, Ólafsson gives the world premiere of British composer Thomas Adès’ aphoristic, impressionistic The Branch, dedicated to Kurtág. Ólafsson’s sensitive touch and pellucid, singing tone – often with slower than usual tempi – explores the mellow end of the piano’s dynamic and expressive range. Might one expect more variety in such a high-concept re-examination of three centuries of European piano music? Well, I found this brilliantly curated and played recital set just the right mood this snowy winter night.