A serendipitous time for a celebration of American culture: likely unintentional, given the long lead times in classical music planning. Nevertheless, the Berlin Konzerthaus’ “Festival USA” swung into town this month against a background of a stranger-than-fiction political dystopia, live-streamed daily from across the Atlantic. Closer to home, the Berlinale Film Festival, occurring almost simultaneously, brought Hollywood A-listers and their hangers-on to the German capital for two weeks.

Víkingur Ólafsson © Enno Kapitza
Víkingur Ólafsson
© Enno Kapitza

Iván Fischer, the Konzerthaus’ music director, sees the festival as a corrective to a lingering European snobbery about “unserious” music by American composers. The Hungarian conductor has precedent as a champion of cross-cultural understanding at a time of nationalist insularity. His concerts in abandoned synagogues across Hungary with the Budapest Festival Orchestra recall painful recent history, and are a rebuff to growing right-wing populism at home and abroad.

Whilst no celebration of American music could ignore Philip Glass, his influence in what is now his 80th year extends far beyond the nation’s borders. The minimalist composer reached a mass audience few other classical artists have managed through his music for the Godfrey Reggio films Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, as well as the box office hit The Truman Show. Yet throughout his career he has repeatedly turned his distinctive style – broadly, based on repeated harmonic cycles and simple, spare melodies – to traditional classical genres.

Having first found fame with the opera Einstein on the Beach, later in his career Glass has become a prolific symphonist. The composer’s 20 piano etudes, which he started composing in the mid 1990s, were written as study pieces to improve his own piano technique, but place themselves in the tradition of the great Romantic pianist-composers.

At the Konzerthaus, young Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who has worked closely with Glass on the Etudes, performed a selection of the works taken from his debut album on Deutsche Grammophon as well as the opening from the composer’s hit album “Glassworks”. The concert was neatly cyclical, mirroring the composer’s style, with sweet arrangements of the works for piano and string quartet reappearing at the end of each half. 

In character, the Etudes run the gamut from glacial stillness to propulsive tumult; many are fiendish in their dexterity. Throughout, Ólafsson kept Glass’ multi-layered textures crystal clear and immediate, with a bright, brilliant tone.  Yet although the Etudes refer to composers from Chopin and Rachmaninov – particularly the final work, no. 20, which is incongruous in its blunt neo-Romanticism – the most striking were those that use minimal means to maximal effect.

In works such as the opening to “Glassworks” and the Etude no. 2, Glass’ considered simplicity and well-honed use of repetition created a canvas on which Ólafsson painted a nuanced sound picture. Through constantly varying his tone and creating a shifting internal dialogue between the voices, the pianist ensured that nothing was ever truly repeated.

Rapturously received by the home crowd, the audience’s affectionate applause was rewarded with two encores, which at first glance stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the programme. Rameau’s Le Rappel des oiseaux is, however, suffused with imitation and repetition – under Ólafsson’s fingers, its evocative birdcalls were vibrant and joyful.

Wagner’s maximalist ecstatic style is a world away from the economy of Glass, yet the pianist brought the same directness and clarity to Liszt’s piano transcription of the Liebestod as he had to the rest of the recital. Although this striking interpretation, with an abrasive and hard-edged climax, would not be to everyone’s taste, it proved Ólafsson to be a daring and unique artist.