Recording of November 2022: From Afar

Víkingur Ólafsson: From Afar
Víkingur Ólafsson, grand and upright pianos
DG 4861681 (24/192 WAV, available on 2 CD, 2 LP). 2022. Christopher Tarnow, prod. & eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

From Afar seems on its face like a dream recording for audiophiles and music lovers. The 2-CD, 44-track project spotlights Víkingur Ólafsson, the sensitive, 38-year-old Icelandic pianist, performing a captivating program of short pieces twice on dissimilar pianos with very different sound: a concert grand and an upright. The very different performances are dictated by Ólafsson's response to these very different instruments. The contrasts are wondrous.

The recordings are unusual, miked so close that it's easy to hear keys and pedals depressed and released. We hear harmonics very clearly, plus a surfeit of musically extraneous lower-midrange/upper-bass body. Don't tune your system to this recording, lest others sound disappointingly lean.

The program, which begins with music by J.S. Bach, was inspired by a two-hour in-person exchange between Ólafsson and Hungarian composer György Kurtág, who at the time was 95 years old. The meeting took place, at Kurtág's request, in September 2021, while Ólafsson was visiting Budapest.

Both performance and program are extraordinary. Ólafsson begins with Kurtág's piano arrangement of J.S. Bach's "Christe, du Lamm Gottes" (Christ, Thou Lamb of God), BWV 619, for organ (performed here on the two pianos). His touch is supremely soft and sensitive, bespeaking total focus and commitment. No matter what he plays, he sounds as though he's reconsidering each note, with devotion and care.

From Bach, we proceed to the excited hush of Robert Schumann's Study in Canonic Form; the warm, cushioned beauty of Ólafsson's arrangement of Bach's Adagio from Sonata No.3 for solo violin; then Kurtág's short "Harmonica." The latter performance lasts but a minute—44 seconds on the upright!—but it startles because Kurtág's different and succinct aesthetic sounds surprisingly like an extension of the centuries-old aesthetics that precede it on the program.

Thus is the pattern set. Three touching Hungarian folk song settings by BartÓk lead to Brahms's Intermezzo in E Major, Op.116/4, then another piece by Kurtág. (There are seven pieces by Kurtág among 22 pieces in the program.) In Ólafsson's hands, each note of the Brahms blossoms like a new petal on a flower, joining others to open in full bloom. Ólafsson's unwavering focus causes us to listen so carefully that when a Kurtág composition concludes each grouping, it impresses again and again as a continuation of the same classical canon. The programming is brilliant.

With the 10th selection, Snorri Sigfús Birgisson's arrangement of the Icelandic folk song "Where Life and Death May Dwell," Ólafsson's journey assumes metaphysical proportions. When we arrive at his arrangement of Sigvaldi Kaldalóns's setting of "Ave Maria," the music is so beautiful that each sound becomes an act of love.

Just when it seems that Ólafsson's recital is in danger of becoming too spiritual for some tastes, he effectively looks up from the keyboard and winks. After Kurtág's "Sleepily" comes Schumann's famed "Träumerei" (Dreaming). Ólafsson's performance may not equal Horowitz at his best, but it takes us from the heavens back down to the natural world.

With a smile on his fingertips, Ólafsson next plays music by Kurtág, Adès, and Schumann that depicts flowers, branches, and birds, twittering and prophetic. At program's end, another heavenly Intermezzo by Brahms (Op.116/5) leads to a piece by Kurtág that lasts more than three minutes—extravagantly long by Kurtág standards. Its surprisingly Brahmsian figures seem a summation until its final notes proclaim that music that inhabits realms beyond words cannot possibly be summarized. Which leaves us paradoxically filled, hanging, wanting more.

The reprise on upright is a trip. A duo performance of Bach's Allegro moderato from Trio Sonata No.1 in E-flat Major, arranged by Kurtág, sounds like music for children. The piano sounds so noisy on Kurtág's "Sleepily" that no one could possibly doze through it. It's hilarious, delightful, and perfect in its imperfections. No rest for the wicked becomes joy for the listener.

Editor Jim, who urged me to review this album, scolded me when I dismissed the upright performances as veering between clatter and infernal racket. It took a second listen to feel that I understood, or intuited, Olafsson's intent. The duo performance of Kurtág's arrangement of Bach's Allegro moderato from Trio Sonata No. 1 in E-flat Major may sound like music for children on the upright piano, but the arrangement of Mozart's "Laudate Dominum" sounds as if it's treading on clouds. The chiming sounds in "Träumerei" are magical; I envisioned visitations by the gentlest of faeries. Other times, I imagined I was hearing mice scampering over crystal. The deeper my listening, the deeper my delight.—Jason Victor Serinus

Charles E Flynn's picture

There is a video trailer (4 min. 23 sec.) here:

The booklet, written by the pianist, but without a track list, is available here:

There are 1 minute sound samples from each track on this page:

PeterPani's picture

Live in Vienna Konzerthaus half a year back. It was the best piano live performance I ever listened to. People got tears in their eyes by the beauty of his playing. Humanism of Mozart in every note played it was!

Siegfried's picture

"clatter and infernal racket" ? try inverting polarity. Magnificent album. Upright versions have a nice "John Cage-prepared piano" modern flavour
Thank you Charles for the links (very welcome since I listen via Qobuz)