A full house at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was treated to a carefully curated concert by the effervescent Icelandic pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson, who is currently taking the classical musical world by storm. His method of engaging audiences has developed into finding new ways to present both familiar and unfamiliar repertoire in a context that illuminates both. His focus here was Mozart and his contemporaries, or “Wolfie and co”, as he described in his lively introduction to the proceedings.

Víkingur Ólafsson
© Ari Magg

The concert was divided into two large sequences of music. Each half was played without a break, the flow carefully planned to merge seamlessly from one work to the next. The first tranche of music was over 50 minutes long and was something of an endurance test for both performer and audience. The differences of style between the compositions were very finely nuanced – which was the point of the evening – but with Mozart somehow rising to top. The music was generally more on the bright side, although much of it was in a minor key. Delightful pieces by Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa were given the Ólafsson charm offensive and were welcome relaxation points. The Rondo in D minor by CPE Bach seemed rather skittish and even Haydn's lively Piano Sonata in B minor Hob.XVI/32 became something of an interlude. It was the Mozart that stood out, notably the glorious Fantasia in D minor K397 and the crystalline perfection of the Piano Sonata in C major, K545, slaughtered by so many of us amateur pianists, which rounded off this musical marathon.

Ólafsson’s presentation of this repertoire is hard to fault. Everything is clear, sensitive and precise, his sense of colouration relating to key modulations is very finely judged. The only quibble would be that at times in the Mozart he seemed to be ever so slightly straining for expression beyond the notes. This led to an occasional exaggeration in the right hand. In his introduction he explained that he had been hesitant to approach Mozart because of his ‘greatness’ and one wondered if these feeling still lingered, as in his performances of the other music he seemed totally uninhibited.

The second half was shorter and mostly Mozart, with only a miniature by Galuppi by way of contrast. It was dominated by one of the composer’s greatest solo keyboard works, the Piano Sonata in C minor K457. Much admired by Beethoven, it bridges the gap to Romanticism in its explicit and heartfelt sense of loss and angst. Ólafsson was entirely successful in his presentation of this masterpiece, increasing his palette of expression to encompass the scope of the piece. Preceding that was a performance of an arrangement by Ólafsson of the Adagio from the late G minor String Quintet, K516, was entirely convincing and beautifully brought off, capturing the sustained five-part polyphony with poise and with more use of the pedals than is usual in Mozart. 

The final Mozart work, the Adagio in B minor, took the intensity of expression even further. Ólafsson found exactly the right tone of tragic sadness with his faultless legato line. Liszt's transcription of the Ave verum corpus was a heavenly epilogue to a performance of intimacy and strength of concentration, which managed to be both challenging and entertaining to the listener in equal measure. Bach, Rameau and Debussy, reflecting his recent successful recordings, found their way into the evening as encores, sending the audience into the wet October night with a smile on their faces.