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Viking(s) and Beethoven

The young man who bowed stiffly to the audience at the Icelandic Ambassador’s residence may have come across as shy in that moment. Yet, all of a sudden, the 21-year-old Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson was omnipresent in the small (and overflowing) room when he merged with Bach by playing the fifth French Suite in a manner that simply forbade mundane comparisons. It was, not the least due to the help of Bach’s ingenious composition, an experience of musical perfection. Charles Bukowski once said, in one of his more profound and rare PG-rated moments, that Bach was the most difficult to play badly, because he had made so few spiritual mistakes. It can hardly be said better, but it also needs to be pointed out that here it wasn’t a matter of ‘not playing badly’ but in at least some of the Suite’s movements a matter of the finest Bach playing I have heard in quite a while. Even if eschatological reasons don’t make room for a deity, at least the Platonic idea of an ideal music should have been evoked in every listener during the Allemande, Sarabande, and the latter half of the Bourrée.

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Philip Glass, Piano Works,
Víkingur Ólafsson

The Juilliard graduate and student of Ann Schein and Seymour Lipkin went on to show that he not only had good Bach to offer but that he had much more than the notes in petto when it came to the very different fifth sonata of Beethoven’s (op. 10, no. 3). The perpendicular notes that stalk along through the first Presto movement were bolted to the floor with so much energy and confidence as to elevate this none-too-grand sonata near the more exclusive realm of sonatas nos. 22, 24, and 27. The Largo e maestoso labored a little harder to find its natural expression. Despite being in search of lost meaning, it was better Beethoven than my latently prejudiced mind would have expected from such a young and completely unknown (not for long – so much is certain!) pianist. Even beyond that, it was better than you could have heard from many a Beethoven veteran, too. Speaking of Beethoven veterans, a touch of Lipkin may have been audible very briefly: the accentuated dead-in-his-tracks stop after the first movement’s first theme reminded of something Lipkin does in his own reading of that work. The Menuetto: Allegro was beautifully tight, which made a variety of speeds harmonize and the relay-play of the notes all the more delightful. When things really got under way in the contrasting theme of that movement, he milked the baby grand (very appropriate in size and tone for the venue) for every bit it was worth. The finale was taken a tad faster than did the interpretation good – but if it did not exactly match the true high points of preceding moments, it was due to the excellence of the former, not the deficiency of the latter.

A world premiere – even the most humble one – is always an event. Music that is alive and kicking as in the case of the 5 Piano Pieces that Ólafur Axelsson (*1951) wrote when he had ‘composer’s block’. We should hope that he overcame that debility with the miniatures Cappuccinio, Logical Conclusion, Intermezzo, Almost Still, and Everyday Waltz, because they are exquisitely distilled beauties, all!

Washington is, of course, the “City of Satan” (as John McCain recently reminded his audience at AEI with a wink) and nepotism and corruption the in-house standard-issue evils. So nowhere could these piano works have been premiered more appropriately than in Washington, D.C. – as Ólafur Axelsson is the father of Víkingur Ólafsson. But if nepotism can be so beautiful as in this case, it must be enthusiastically embraced. 5 Pieces reminded of Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, with You in more than just musical ways. In both cases the artists composed/recorded short sessions late at night while suffering creative lows (Jarrett suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at the time), and both are full of soft hues and filled with familial tenderness.

At this point during the concert it would have been foolishness to expect anything less than excellence from the two Debussy preludes (Bruyères and Ondine from the second book) and they did not disappoint, indeed. (Ondine, even if ‘the French’ refuse to admit it, is of course all about Rheinmaidens and only Debussy’s editor rejected the original title Pour toi Flosshilde.)

Impetuous youth helped “VHÓ” in Schumann’s Carnaval, op. 9. There were impressive moments of great beauty, current, volatility… and if the last ounce of depth or polish was not found in every note or episode I will hold against that the fact that I don’t remember the last time I so enjoyed Schumann’s piano work (with which I have an admittedly uneasy relationship). All one was left to do was enjoy the music, marvel at a night’s worth of performances that far exceeded even my most optimistic expectations and – last but never least when it comes to Embassy Series events – the gustatory pleasures that the following reception offered. From wine to Icelandic beer with fried haddock, fresh salmon and tuna, and whatnot, it positively rivaled the Norwegians’ excellent work in that department. No wonder it was past midnight when I, far from being the last to leave, tumbled out of the residence, an Icelandic meatball in my mouth and Gerswhin tunes – courtesy of a reinvigorated Víkingur back at the piano – in the air.

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