Víkingur Ólafsson wants to change his mind about Mozart

Opera music

When Vikingur Ólafsson was 8 years old, he had a temper tantrum Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As he tried to play the tracks in the little trickster Easy sonata in C major, the so called “Easy Sonata”, he became so frustrated that he literally scratched out the notes with a pencil.

The 37-year-old Icelandic pianist has since made peace with Mozart. Ólafsson included the popular sonata on Mozart and contemporaries, a new album that aims to dispel myths about the famous composer while shedding light on the music scene of the late 18th century. To better understand Mozart, Ólafsson presents his music expertly mixed with composers who have prospered alongside him.

The successful opera composer Baldassare Galuppi probably never met Mozart and fell into obscurity soon after his death in 1785. Yet Ólafsson notes in his libretto essay, the combination of refinement and energy nervousness found in Galuppi’s Piano Sonata No. 9, which opens the album, reminds him of the uneasy mood that launches Mozart’s 40th Symphony.

An even darker ambience permeates Mozart’s powerful Piano Sonata No. 14, music that seems far ahead of its time. Ólafsson underlines the Beethoven-sque violence and the shattering use of silence by Mozart.

With this music – plus a whispered interpretation of the Adagio in B minor and a Haunted Fantasy in D minor – Ólafsson illustrates his point: he wants to demystify the image of Amadeus as the cheerful scholar with the laughter of the hyena. There are dark shadows and despair in this music. Yet even in the midst of suffering, Mozart could seem incredibly optimistic. As an example, lafsson includes the Kleine Gigue in G major, released in May 1789. With its bold harmonies and quirky rhythms, it sounds surprisingly modern.

Mozart may have absorbed some of that radical sound of one of his heroes, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, the second eldest son of Johann Sebastian and another favorite of Ólafsson. CPE Bach’s Rondo in D minor features crazy hairpin turns, sharp stops, and a freewheeling feel, out of the blue.

The music of Josef Haydn – the idol of Mozart – makes an appearance on the album in a quick but elegant interpretation of the 47th Sonata. The same goes for the music of Domenico Cimarosa, a genius of comic opera for whom Mozart once wrote an aria. Ólafsson unearths and beautifully arranges two of Cimarosa’s barely known keyboard sonatas, taking great care to underline their long, singing melodies.

I love the way Víkingur Ólafsson plays – his warm tone, superior technique and crystal clear transparency – but also his way of thinking. Last year, for his album Debussy – Rameau, he set up a sort of musical conversation between two revolutionary French composers who lived almost 200 years apart.

Ólafsson concludes this album with a sublime tribute to one of Mozart’s last pieces – a version of Ave verum corpus in a delicate and transcendent performance that distills the simplicity of his music as his chords slowly rise to the sky. This is yet another side of the master composer, on a compelling output that manages to offer listeners an attitude adjustment on Mozart in the context of his peers and our contemporary ears.