The art of album – Víkingur Ólafsson’s Mozart & Contemporaries comes off as the finest of 2021

Although proclaimed dead repeatedly throughout the streaming era, the old-school concept of an album is alive and well. The latest evidence comes in the guise of Víkingur Ólafsson’s superlative Mozart & Contemporaries, released on the Icelandic pianist’s venerable house label Deutsche Grammophon.

Alongside Ólafsson’s outstanding performances, the new album is a case in point of insightful programming, for Mozart & Contemporaries is not merely a vessel to carry a playlist over to the listener. Instead, the album is a spellbinding and thought-provoking portrait of not only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and some of his amazing contemporaries, but a vivid journey into the very core of the Zeitgeist of the art of the keyboard in the late eighteenth century Central Europe. 

In addition, the eighty-four-minute(!) musical selection constitutes a narrative arch of unusual enchantment and detail, where linear and cyclical sequences of key relationships, gestures and textures unravel with dazzling inspiration, yielding to new discoveries upon each listening session, lending the album longevity beyond most recital discs. 

The journey begins with a beautifully meditative rendition of Andante spiritoso from Baldassare Galuppi’s Sonata in F minor; a timeless miniature that might have been written yesterday by a wistful post-minimalist composer. After catching the listener’s full attention with Galuppi’s candle-lit contemplation, Ólafsson switches the gear, presenting us with an ingeniously playful outing of Mozart’s brilliant Rondo in F major, K. 494 (1786).   

Keeping up with the mood and texture, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s marvellous Rondo in D minor, Wq. 61/4 (1785) ensues, clad in witty raiments of keyboard dexterity. An absolute gem, Ólafsson’s take on younger Bach’s score is abundant with the most delightful musicality and textural glister. 

As the album proceeds, another tour to Italy comes to pass, as we get to hear two sublime sonata movements from Domenico Cimarosa, harmonised and adapted for a modern instrument by Ólafsson. The first one pick up the key of D minor from the Bach Rondo, bridging the programme into another Mozart masterstroke, the Fantasia in D minor, K. 397 (1782). 

On surface, the Fantasia appears as a series of free associations between various types of musical contemplation. Yet there are manifold connections beneath, gradually revealed to the listener as the iterations of the album mount. As Mozart himself apparently left the Fantasia unfinished, most printed editions feature a ten-measure ending written, presumably, by August Eberhad Müller. However, Ólafsson dispenses with the closing bars, taking off on a final dominant in Mozart’s hand and segueing with Rondo in D amor, K. 485 (1786).       

An ideal pairing astonishingly performed, the Fantasia and the Rondo constitute an appealing musical entity; two mindsets splendidly juxtaposed. Establishing symmetry, the second Cimarosa excerpt ensues, this time in A minor, closing the musical framework in extraordinary sonic twilight.

No portrait of Mozart would be complete without commentary from his senior colleague and close friend Jospeh Haydn, whose ravishing Sonata in B minor, Hob. XVI: 32 (1774-76) is more than well served by Ólafsson’s spirited outing, one of refined agility and flowing lyricism, with doses of good humour embedded. 

Víkingur Ólafsson photographed by © Ari Magg

Speaking of sonatas, the second half of the album includes two of Mozart’s forays into the genre, the luminous Sonata facile in C major (1788) and the gorgeously dark-hued Sonata in C minor (1784). Another musical pair carefully chosen, the two sonatas are given in riveting performances, worthy of bar-by-bar analysis from any attentive listener. 

The sonatas of Haydn and Mozart are woven together with the most uplifting selection of precious stones in sound, beginning with the keyboard feast of Kleine Gigue in G, K. 574 (1789). A teasing homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, written during Mozart’s springtime stay in Leipzig, the piece gets a thoroughly joyful outing on the album, provoking both heartfelt laughter and deep admiration upon every encounter. 

Following the Sonata facile, Ólafsson invites his listeners upon a spellbinding excursion outside Mozart’s keyboard realm with his arrangement of the Adagio in E flat from String Quintet in G minor, K. 516 (1787). The joint textures of the four string instruments lend themselves beautifully to solo keyboard, resulting in a dream-like musical re-imagination of exquisite invention. 

While listening Ólafsson performing his arrangement, the mental image of Mozart and Haydn grabbing their violas and performing the quintet with their fellow musicians, mentioned by the pianist in his excellent liner notes, is drawn in one’s mind with acute liveliness, as the musical lines are touchingly woven together on the keyboard.

Priming the K. 457 sonata, Ólafsson pays his second visit to Galuppi with an elegant performance of the refined Larghetto movement from the Italian master’s Sonata in C minor. A prayer-like musical moment, with its descending opening motive recurring throughout its slowly-paced meditation, the Larghetto serves as a perfect introduction to the Mozart sonata. 

On the penultimate track, further sequences of Mozart’s enthralling musical fantasy comes to pass with the reflective performance of the Adagio in B minor, K. 540 (1788). Fluctuating between nightly shadows and glimpses of daybreak, the Adagio provides pensive afterthought to the turbulent realm of the Sonata in C minor. 

To complete the Mozartian narrative, the final say is given to the posterity, with a nineteenth century re-imagination by Franz Liszt, whose keyboard transcription of the motet Ave verum corpus, K. 618 (1791) glistens in otherworldly radiance. Seen from Liszt’s viewpoint, the unique transparency of Mozart’s mature style comes off with pre-echoes of the musical transubstantiation of late Wagner, while remaining true to Mozart’s original vision. Performed with utmost finesse and dedication, the album dissolves into resplendent transfiguration.   

Gorgeously recorded, the Ólafsson’s astonishing performances are served with top-class engineering and post-production. Combined with exemplary liner notes and bound with a digisleeve of sublime artwork, the DG release is the hands-down winner of title of Album of the Year. 

Víkingur Ólafsson, piano

Baldassare Galuppi: Andante spiritoso from Sonata in F minor for keyboard

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo in F major for piano, K. 494 (1786)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Rondo in D minor, Wq. 61/4 (H290) for keyboard (1785)

Domenico Cimarosa: Sonata No. 42 in D minor for keyboard (Arranged by Víkingur Ólafsson)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia in D minor, K. 397 (1782) (Fragment)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo in D major for piano, K. 485 (1786)

Domenico Cimarosa: Sonata No. 55 in A minor for keyboard (Arranged by Víkingur Ólafsson)

Joseph Haydn: Sonata in B minor for keyboard, Hob. XVI: 32 (1774-76)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Kleine Gigue in G major for piano, K. 574 (1789)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in C major (»facile«) for piano, K. 545 (1788)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio in E flat major from String Quintet in G minor, K. 516 (1787) (Arranged by Víkingur Ólafsson)

Baldassare Galuppi: Larghetto from Sonata in C minor for keyboard, Illy 34

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in C minor for piano, K. 457 (1784)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio in B minor for piano, K. 540 (1788)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Ave verum corpus, K. 618 (1791) (Transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt)

Recorded at Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik on 5-9 April 2021

Deutsche Grammophon 4860525 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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