Vikingur Olafsson

Recordings of the Month: October 2022

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October has brought us a rich harvest of new CD releases, including several truly superb new piano recordings. It’s time to unveil my Recordings of the Month, so here’s my selection of the highlights…

Víkingur Ólafsson • From Afar

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson continues to forge his own, very distinctive path, his latest Deutsche Grammophon album perhaps his most eclectic yet.

In his in-depth and personal booklet note, Ólafsson tells us of his inspiring meeting with the revered 95-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág, an encounter which lit the fuse for this recording.

Kurtág’s piano miniatures, which the composer christened Játákok, or Games, provide a focus for Ólafsson‘s choice of music here, and appear throughout the programme as he puts it “like a trail of shiny little stones in a moonlit forest”.

Between them, the pianist intersperses similarly intimate pieces drawn from the folk music of Hungary and Iceland, from the classical repertoire (Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Bartók and Sigvaldi Kaldalóns), and from other noted contemporary composers (Thomas Adès, Snorri Sigfús Birgisson).

As with his previous album juxtaposing the music of Rameau and Debussy, reviewed here, Ólafsson’s gift here is in unifying these works into a cohesive artistic statement. The pianist describes Kurtág’s music thus:

“In these works it is clear that Kurtág’s primary method of inquiry in the world of musical ideas is the same as that of the child: play. Written specifically to prompt spontaneous, intuitive musicality from the performer, these works are never austere in their brevity, but rich and full of possibilities. Their intricate structures open up a vast space for the imagination – like a small seashell brought to the ear to hear the great ocean roaring.”

Ólafsson doesn’t simply select complementary pieces that combine minimal content with maximum impact, but approaches each piece with the same rapt intent as he gives Kurtág’s. To hear Bach and Brahms played repurposed as ambient meditations, might alarm the classical gatekeepers who sit on international competition juries, but proves deeply affecting.

Further adding to the sense that this album is to be experienced with mindful attention, the same programme is recorded twice, presented on two CDs, the first on a Steinway grand piano, the second on an upright. Comparing the interpretations these two instruments inspire in the performer is fascinating in itself.

In the case of the Steinway grand, the recording is made the more ambient by the addition of reverb and delay effects, while the upright piano enjoys added felt to create a hushed tone. Ólafsson relates this to the intimate impact of his home piano growing up, while noting that Kurtág also employed the “felt piano” sound; many listeners will more immediately recognise this as the timbre beloved by Nils Frahm, Joep Beving, and most recently adopted by Ludovico Einaudi on his Underwater album.

These last comparisons are especially intriguing; From Afar seems somewhat to channel the atmospheric vibe of those popular classical crossover artists, while Ólafsson’s chosen repertoire clearly has more established, enduring roots. The resulting album weaves a truly beautiful and magical spell, and is for me without doubt one of the musical highlights of 2022.

Krystian Zimerman • Szymanowski

It has been five years since Polish virtuoso Krystian Zimerman’s last solo recording. For his new release he follows earlier recordings of music by compatriots Chopin, Bacewicz and Lutosławski with a superb survey of music by another of Poland’s greatest piano composers, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937).

Szymanowski’s music developed through several artistic phases during what proved to be too short a career. From his earliest works enamoured with German Romanticism, to more modernist music imbued with the techniques and aesthetics of Scriabin, Debussy and Stravinsky, the piano works of Szymanowski share a distinctive voice that is perhaps better known today from the composer’s orchestral masterpieces.

Zimerman, clearly aiming to rectify this injustice of neglect, selects an enterprising programme of music written between 1896 and 1931 representing the various stages of Szymanowski’s creative development. Eschewing the three Sonatas, the popular Études Op.4 and Métopes, he opts for a less familiar selection that begins with four of the 9 Preludes Op.1 composed when Szymanowski was still a teenager.

The Masques Op. 34 were composed a decade and a half later, during the First World War, and are the most overtly challenging modernist works in the recital. Zimerman delivers them with an acute and dazzling sense of dramatic narrative.

Next, he brings us four of the 20 Mazurkas Op.50, composed from 1926-1931 and the latest pieces here, before returning to Szymanowski’s youth for the Variations on a Polish Folk Theme Op.10, a bedazzling work which brought its composer early success.

While the rest of the disc was recorded in Japan’s Fukuyama Hall in 2021, the Masques recording dates back to 1994, but has previously remained unreleased. It is to the engineers’ credit that the disc as a whole has a consistency of piano tone and dynamic.

As for Zimerman’s playing, these marvellous performances can instantly be hailed as new benchmarks for this composer’s repertoire, and while this pianist is perhaps not known for recording complete cycles, we must hope that he returns to the music of Karol Szymanowski, and soon!

Clare Hammond • Hélène de Montgeroult

If the piano works of Szymanowski are rather neglected, those of Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836) are more decisively so.

Clare Hammond, whose previous disc Variations (reviewed here) proved a particular favourite, has now brought us a revelatory recording of 29 Études by Montgeroult, which we must again hope will help to restore the composer’s fortunes with today’s audiences:

Born Hélène de Nervo to an aristocratic Lyon family, married to a Marquis, imprisoned as a spy in Italy, dodging the guillotine during the Reign of Terror…. Montgeroult’s storied and colourful life was that of a woman who overcame high odds to establish herself as one of the most prodigious keyboard players and composers of her generation.

Montgeroult’s keyboard works included nine Sonatas and some 114 Études, which were written between 1788 and 1812, and subsequently published in three large volumes in 1816. An enthusiastic advocate for this music, Hammond tells us not unconvincingly,

“When I first encountered these études, I was astounded. Not only are they of a similar quality to music by composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, they are stylistically so advanced as to call into question our perceptions of where the ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ periods fall…”

The 29 pieces Hammond has selected are certainly varied, and speak to that period of upheaval and creative transition that we most strongly associate with Beethoven, seven years Montgeroult’s junior. To my ears, her music may lack the commanding personality and towering genius of the latter’s great masterpieces, but there is no doubting the value and appealing charm of these pieces, nor that their composer was ahead of her time.

As for the musical finesse, commitment and technical command of Hammond’s marvellous performances, Montgeroult could surely not hope for a more brilliant exponent. This is an important and hugely enjoyable release, superbly recorded and delivered, and should not be missed.

Keith Jarrett • Bordeaux Concert

A new recording from Keith Jarrett is always a treat, but since suffering the two strokes in 2018 which forced his retirement, there is an added poignancy in knowing that, though the ECM Records vaults may not yet be dry, they are nevertheless finite.

Recorded on Jarrett’s final European tour in 2016, the Bordeaux Concert reveals him at the top of his considerable game, as indeed did the much-lauded previous recordings from that same tour, Munich 2016 (released 2019) and The Budapest Concert (2020).

Jarrett’s legion of fans will be familiar with the routine here: as ever, the pianist’s spontaneous creations are split into tracks of accessible length, and on this occasion there are thirteen of them.

As usual, the first couple of tracks are dissonant outbursts, a flurry of heat that newcomers to Jarrett’s art may initially find challenging to engage with. But as the recital unfolds, we are treated to the full range of Jarrett’s later tropes: the boogie workout, the melodic Americana, and the deliciously lyrical jazz ballads which are (for me at least) always a peculiar highlight.

However many of these concerts appear on disc, reverently mastered by ECM’s brilliant Manfred Eicher, it seems that this fan’s appetite is yet to be satiated: more please!

But should this indeed prove to be the valedictory disc, it certainly provides a fine record of Jarrett’s astonishing and truly unique gift, and an eloquent farewell from surely one of the greatest pianistic geniuses of our time. Tremendous!

In November we can look forward to releases from Leif Ove Andsnes, Eric Lu, Rudolf Buchbinder and more…
Join me here to find out my choice of Recordings of the Month…!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.