The last time Víkingur Ólafsson played Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic, pianist and conductor had never met. Heck, they weren’t even in the same country. Scheduled to perform at the Bergen International Festival last May, Ólafsson was in Reykjavík lockdown, so pre-recorded his contribution on a Steinway in the Harpa concert hall which was beamed into Bergen’s Grieghallen. Making up for lost time, the Icelandic pianist has now enjoyed a five-concert residency in the orchestra’s Wintermezzo festival and last night finally got to perform the Grieg with them in person.

Víkingur Ólafsson and the Bergen Philharmonic
© Tor Høvik | Bergens Tidende

What you cannot do with a pre-recorded contribution where the conductor has to rely on a click-track to coordinate the band, is indulge in lots of rubato, that ebb and flow where the soloist can tease the orchestra by spinning a phrase longer than usual or spur them on by pressing the accelerator pedal. Together in the same concert hall, Ólafsson and Gardner delighted in this push and pull, giving a thought-provoking reading of this evergreen concerto. Even in the piano’s opening declamatory statement – marked fortissimo in the score – Ólafsson surprised with softer dynamics to echo the bolder chords. 

The Bergen Philharmonic knows this work like the back of its hand – Grieg’s Troldhaugen villa isn’t many miles away – yet it was equally prepared to take risks. The string phrasing just before the first movement coda was played remarkably quietly, while its bracing contributions to the folkish finale were invigorating. The Adagio was very slow and tender – leaning to the soporific – but Ólafsson’s unforced approach and the fluidity of his playing presented a refreshing account that challenged the usual perceptions. 

The concerto was the climax of an intriguing programme devised by Gardner which took folk music as its inspiration. After many months of Covid-shortened concerts, here was a full evening, played before a reduced capacity audience in the Grieghallen, complete with an interval chat between conductor and soloist. (Yes, an interval. Remember those?) Ólafsson opened each half with scene-setting solos: the Hungarian Folksongs from Csík, far from the percussive piano music sometimes associated with Béla Bartók and played with filigree delicacy, and one of Grieg’s charming Lyric Pieces.

Víkingur Ólafsson, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic
© Tor Høvik | Bergens Tidende

Bartók’s Divertimento was given a punchy reading by the Bergen strings, who dug into the folk rhythms and fizzed in the third movement, with its concerto grosso interplay between solo strings and the ensemble. Before the concerto, Stravinsky provided another perspective on Grieg’s homeland. His Norwegian Moods are seen through a particularly Russian lens. The doleful cor anglais solo in Song, beautifully played, has a truly slavic melancholy and the Wedding Dance wouldn’t sound out of place in the Shrovetide Fair of Petrushka

György Ligeti was the outlier on the programme. Despite its title, Melodien is far-removed from any sort of folk idioms. With high woodwinds and vertiginous strings playing high up on the bridge, heroically played, it’s an atmospheric score, cosmic in feel, speckled with tuned percussion and celesta. Its brittle transparency sat uneasily alongside the earthier Bartók. 

Appropriately, Ólafsson’s encore was an Icelandic folk song – “almost all Icelandic folk songs are very sad” – transcribed for piano by Snorri Sigfús Birgisson. It was played with sincerity and a featherweight touch to transport the audience to his homeland… this time, without any need for technological wizardry. 

This performance was reviewed from the Bergen Philharmonic's live video stream