A welcome addition to the offerings at Severance Music Center this season is a new series of piano recitals, inaugurated Wednesday evening by Víkingur Ólafsson in his Cleveland debut. Ólafsson will return in March for his Cleveland Orchestra debut, and subsequent entries in the piano series include appearances by Dame Mitsuko Uchida and Maria João Pires. Ólafsson offered a fascinating and illuminating program titled Mozart & Contemporaries, also captured the eponymous album. Major works of Mozart – mostly dating from the 1780s – were interspersed with generally lesser-known pieces of four contemporaries, placing Mozart in lively dialogue with the composers who influenced and surrounded him.

Víkingur Ólafsson
© Ari Magg

Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa were both composers who made their mark in comic opera, but produced some fabulously inventive writing for keyboard. A movement from a Galuppi sonata opened the program, and one was immediately captivated by the expressive range Ólafsson drew. A further Galuppi sonata in C minor appeared in the second half. The sparse textures, undiluted by filigree, made a strong impression – in his spoken remarks, Ólafsson even suggested its stark writing anticipates Arvo Pärt. Cimarosa was also represented with two sonata movements: glacially-paced gems, and one could certainly sense the germ of Mozart’s great slow movements.

Haydn’s B minor sonata was given a stylish reading, with its rhythmic intensity bringing out the Sturm und Drang pathos. A central Menuet was elegant in its directness, but a more animated section offered contrast and surprising dissonance. The whirlwind finale excited in its drama, and the thundering octaves showed Ólafsson’s full commitment to making use of the resources of a modern Steinway grand – an instrument which had a particularly striking presence in the intimate Reinberger Chamber Hall. CPE Bach’s Rondo in D minor was also a work of great drama, rhapsodic and mercurial in its shifting moods.

In a clever programming choice, it was preceded by Mozart’s Rondo in F major (a work later repurposed as the finale of the K533 sonata), illustrating the two composers’ divergent approaches to the form – the Mozart example boasting a pearly theme, delicately decorated. The Fantasia no. 3 in D minor showed Mozart at his most profound, distilled to the essential, and one was on the edge of their seat as Ólafsson teased out enormous drama and vast contrast. Instead of the D major section which Mozart never completed, Ólafsson imaginatively went directly into the K485 rondo in the same key. A sprightly work, the pianist found endless possibilities in the simple theme.

Two piano sonatas were especially remarkable. Familiar as K545 might be, there was a weightlessness and transparency that made wondrous effect, almost as if hearing the work for the first time. One could feel Ólafsson’s awe in the wake of Mozart, as if there was a communal sense of discovery amongst performer and audience alike. Ólafsson boldly called Mozart the “first Romantic”; nowhere was this more apparent than the C minor sonata with its fiery, ferocious octaves and sharp contrasts. It was so refreshing to hear a pianist unafraid to put his distinctive individual stamp on his interpretations.

Ólafsson’s own transcription of the Adagio from the G minor string quintet plaintively probed its expressive depths. Dramatic tension in the Adagio in B minor resolved to the purest of calm, and Liszt’s transcription of the Ave verum corpus was simply angelic, leaving the audience in spellbound silence. Selecting a suitable encore after such a program is a lofty task, but Ólafsson found a perfect pendant in a transcription of a movement from an organ sonata by JS Bach. Utterly entrancing, and a fitting homage to one of Mozart’s idols.