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Review | Vikingur Ólafsson at Koerner Hall

We came for Mozart, but stayed for his contemporaries.

The image that comes to mind when you think of a mostly-Mozart recital probably isn’t a sleek-suited millennial from Iceland with good stage-banter. Enter Vikingur Ólafsson from Reykjavík. We often read about young pianists “breathing new life” into the dusty pages of forgotten annals of baroque music, only to show up and find the same regurgitated curtsying to overly academic music.

But Ólafsson’s performance at Toronto’s Koerner Hall – his debut at the beautiful concert hall – was a genuinely experimental excursion. It was the equivalent of touring a city you’ve lived in all your life, but under the auspices of a tour guide that’s obsessed with every detail on every brick on every corner. It is this palpable obsession with the boy genius composer that animates the nearly 85-minute performance – sans sheet music – that invigorated, then exhausted, then reinvigorated the Koerner Hall audience.

Vikingur Ólafsson by Kalya Ramu

The program was a carbon copy of Ólafsson’s latest album for Deutsche Grammophon, Mozart & Contemporaries. In this album, and throughout the performance, we are taken by a steady hand on a tour of the creative atmosphere that engendered the Mozart that we know, via contemporaries such as Cimarosa, Galuppi, and Haydn. Perhaps it’s merely modern sensibilities, but the myth – and yes myth – of the obstinate and inexplicable musical genius just doesn’t have the same sway over the imagination that it once did, at least for me. This is particularly true when we factor in all the attendant baggage of classical music’s worship of white male genius. Ólafsson’s program circumvented this worship – though not entirely avoiding it – by, in effect, zooming out to show the larger setting from which Mozart’s music emerged. This is the gimmick that lends Mozart & Contemporaries it’s experimental bent. My guess is that there were only a few in attendance that are as intimately familiar with the aforementioned contemporaries as they are with the Mozart piano pieces on program. Slightly unfamiliar territories like these help to deliver a truly present concert experience. One that shifts away from worship of a particular genius and towards the unadorned content of the musical material – which, in this case, is brimming with that incandescent luminosity of the baroque chamber. Essentially: we came for Mozart, but stayed for his contemporaries.

Back in January, Ólafsson joined smART Magazine from Paris, between rehearsals, for an all-purpose conversation on his album and the current musical milieu across Europe. Discussing Mozart & Contemporaries, he previewed the concert with some thoughts on his mission for this project, and the Mozart he wanted to present:

VO | “Very often we look back on history in rough terms. We think of the Classical period, Baroque period, Romantic period, or Impressionism, thinking these terms describe something—but they really don’t. My idea with this album was to give a snapshot of the kind of creative diversity that was going on with musicians of the 1780s.”

“One aspect I wanted to show is the music of composers like Galuppi and Cimarosa who have been lost in Mozart's shadow. Mozart’s shadow is big for a reason, but that’s not to say that these other composers weren’t incredibly creative people. In their best moments, they wrote inspired and ingenious music that can easily stand next to Mozart.”

“Another aspect I wanted to show was Mozart in his last 10 years. Sometimes we focus too much on his youthful genius, and I actually think that everything changed for Mozart between 1781 and 1791. That’s when he became Mozart as we know him. If we imagine he had died in 1781 instead of 1791, we would lose great operas like Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, as well as the late chamber music, incredible late piano works, and so much more. If we had lost those works, I don’t think we’d view him the same way today.”

Find the full interview in the upcoming Issue 9 of smART Magazine.

Vikingur Ólafsson at Koerner Hall

The sheer physical concentration required to execute this program can’t be overstated. 85 minutes of nuances in gestures and intonations, emphasis on this dying note and that thundering intro – all this and the pianist still emerges unblemished, returning for several curtain calls plus an encore delivered with the same melodic acuity as the Andante spiritoso by Galuppi that performed nearly two hours earlier. Speaking with Ólafsson, it’s easy to see the genuine and infectious obsession he has for the music. I don’t think this obsession is a necessary prerequisite for a convincing recital, but it’s rare enough that when you see it, a slight shadow of doubt is cast on what everyone else is doing up there.

Did I mention this was a nearly two-hour concert? Divided only by a 5 minute breather to reintroduce blood flow to our legs? Perhaps a shorter program, teasing excerpts from the album, would have been better for selling the CDs and vinyl copies in the lobby? It felt like very little was left for the imagination in this regard. Not to mention the missed opportunity for Ólafsson to reach deeper into his bag of obscure contemporaries to deliver a program that’s more even curated to the evening. The saving grace here is that you don’t get the short contextualizing lectures and anecdotal tidbits, which Ólafsson inserted throughout the performance, in the studio recording.

Vikingur Ólafsson at Koerner Hall

That said, I’m reluctant to complain about the length of this program when Toronto has gone so long without live performances, and with so many despiriting interruptions. At any rate, live music is back here and smART Magazine is looking forward to getting into the swing of the concert circuit. It’s open season again, and hopefully for good this time – fingers crossed.

Author: Michael Zarathus-Cook

Date: Performed on February 24, 2022

Venue: Koerner Hall

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