Víkingur Ólafsson’s star has risen so high in classical circles in the past few years that his Proms debut felt very overdue. Performing concertos by Bach and Mozart in the Royal Albert Hall – a space acoustically better suited to Romantic bombast than Classical restraint – is not the easiest task. Alongside the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi (a last-minute step-in for Santtu-Matias Rouvali, stranded by scheduling issues due to the pandemic), the Icelandic pianist was the centrepiece of a programme bookended by symphonies from two Russian masters: Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1 in D major "Classical", Op.25 and Shostakovich's Symphony no. 9 in E flat major, Op.70.

Víkingur Ólafsson
© Mark Allan

Ólafsson’s first performance was of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto no. 5 in F minor, BWV1056. As a piece it expresses daring impulsiveness and delicate reflection, characteristic of Bach and, it seems, of Ólafsson as a performer. Though the cleanness, precision and sense-making of his playing has been his primary calling card, Ólafsson is emotionally driven. After determinedly seizing the Allegro movement by the scruff of the neck, the middle Largo was like being held suspended in time, the graceful pizzicato strings and oboe entwining Ólafsson’s luminous tone. Weaving the rolling, improvisatory thread of the melody hypnotically into the propulsive conclusion, this was a moment of pure gentleness that felt well worth waiting for.

Like Glenn Gould, another outstanding performer of Bach and Mozart, it would be a mistake to call Ólafsson’s playing more technical and intellectual than emotional. While he is an understated presence at the keyboard, his entire focus is clearly pulled into the flow of a piece and driven by its emotional pull. He seems to descend into the piece’s sphere and to invite the audience down with him, somehow creating an atmosphere both intense and at ease. This was certainly the case with the piece following the interval, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, K491.

Paavo Järvi
© Mark Allan

Orchestra and pianist were in a harmonious accordance throughout. The unusual presence of both oboes and clarinets in a Mozart concerto, as well as trumpets and drums, set a powerful arena for the pianist to chart a path through, although the performance also managed to capture the unnamable brooding intensity at the work’s core. Ólafsson did not emotionally overcommit, managing instead to carve out space for uncertainty in the music, from the serenading acceptance of the middle movement to the chromatically intense and virtuosic finale. Two heavily demanded encores came before he bade farewell: August Stradal’s transcription of the andante from Bach’s Organ Sonata no.4, BWV528 and Liszt’s arrangement of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. Soft and understated, played with complete control and steadily rising to electrify the atmosphere of Royal Albert Hall, the solo offerings felt both complete in themselves and epilogues to the pieces we had just heard. 

The symphonies similarly harken back to a Classical style: smaller scale, cleaner lines, abundance-in-restraint. The Philharmonia played Prokofiev's First Symphony with sustained buoyancy, balancing Mozartian grace with the composer's particular humour and modern knowingness. The impression made by Järvi’s enjoyable presence at the podium was of a conductor exchanging elegance and wit with his musicians, especially during the third movement’s there-and-gone Gavotte. After Ólafsson had departed, the evening ended with Shostakovich’s Ninth – a playful, tricksy, generous performance, and a satisfying ending to an concert full of depth beneath shifting surfaces.