Víkingur Ólafsson Wants To Change Your Mind About Mozart

Sep 3, 2021
Originally published on September 3, 2021 5:40 pm

When Víkingur Ólafsson was 8 years old, he threw a tantrum over Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As he tried to play the runs in the deceptive little Sonata facile in C major, the so-called "Easy Sonata," he grew so frustrated that he literally scratched out the notes with a pencil.

Since then, the 37-year-old Icelandic pianist has made peace with Mozart. Ólafsson has included the popular sonata on Mozart & 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 cunningly mixed with composers who thrived alongside him.

The wildly successful opera composer Baldassare Galuppi probably never met Mozart, and slipped into obscurity not long after dying in 1785. Still, Ólafsson notes in his booklet essay, the combination of refinement and nervous energy 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 mood pervades Mozart's powerful Piano Sonata No. 14, music that looks far ahead of its time. Ólafsson highlights the Beethoven-esque violence and Mozart's shattering use of silence.

With this music — plus a whispered performance of the Adagio in B minor and a haunted Fantasia in D minor — Ólafsson illustrates his point: He wants to debunk the image of Amadeus as the lighthearted savant with the hyena giggle. There are dark shadows and despair in this music. Still, even in the midst of suffering, Mozart could sound impossibly upbeat. As an example, Ólafsson includes the Kleine Gigue in G major, dashed off in May of 1789. With its bold harmonies and quirky rhythms, it sounds surprisingly modern.

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Mozart may have absorbed some of that radical sound from one of his heroes, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the second eldest son of Johann Sebastian and another Ólafsson favorite. C.P.E. Bach's Rondo in D minor features crazy hairpin turns, abrupt stops and a freewheeling, off-the cuff-feel.

Music by Josef Haydn — Mozart's idol — makes an appearance on the album in a swift yet elegant rendition of the 47th Sonata. So does music by Domenico Cimarosa, a comic opera genius for whom Mozart once wrote an aria. Ólafsson unearths, and beautifully arranges, two of Cimarosa's barely-known keyboard sonatas, taking great care to emphasize their long, singing melodies.

I love how Víkingur Ólafsson plays — his warm tone, superior technique and crystalline transparency — but also how he thinks. Last year, for his album Debussy – Rameau, he set up a musical conversation of sorts between two groundbreaking French composers who lived nearly 200 years apart.

Ólafsson concludes this album with a sublime salute to one of Mozart's final pieces – a version of the Ave verum corpus in a delicate, transcendent performance that distills the simplicity of his music as its chords slowly rise to the heavens. It's yet another side of the master composer, on a probing release that manages to offer listeners an attitude adjustment on Mozart within the context of his peers and our contemporary ears.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pianist Vikingur Olafsson's fleet fingers have led some to call him Iceland's Glenn Gould.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART'S "RONDO IN D MAJOR, K. 485")

SHAPIRO: On his new album, called "Mozart & Contemporaries," Olafsson dispels myths about the famous composer while shedding light on the music scene of the late 18th century. NPR's Tom Huizenga has this review.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: When little Vikingur Olafsson was just 8, he threw a tantrum over Mozart.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART'S "PIANO SONATA NO. 16 IN C MAJOR, K. 545 'SONATA FACILE': I. ALLEGRO")

HUIZENGA: Olafsson couldn't manage the runs in this deceptive little sonata, so he scratched out the notes with his pencil. Since then, the 37-year-old pianist has made peace with Mozart. He's included the music on an album devoted to the composer plus a few from Mozart's cohort - musicians who thrived alongside him, such as the Italian Baldassare Galuppi.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF BALDASSARE GALUPPI'S "PIANO SONATA NO. 9 IN F MINOR: I. ANDANTE SPIRITOSO")

HUIZENGA: Once the most popular opera composer of his day, Galuppi was all but forgotten not long after he died in 1785. And that's just after Mozart wrote the powerful "Sonata No. 14" that looks far ahead of its time. Olafsson highlights the Beethoven-esque violence and Mozart's shattering use of silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART'S "PIANO SONATA NO. 14 IN C MINOR, K. 457: III. ALLEGRO ASSAI")

HUIZENGA: With this music, Olafsson illustrates his point. He wants to debunk the image of Amadeus as the lighthearted savant with a hyena laugh. There are dark shadows and despair in this music. Still, even in the midst of trouble, Mozart could sound impossibly upbeat, like this little gigue he wrote in May of 1789. With its bold harmonies and quirky rhythms, it sounds surprisingly modern.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART'S "KLEINE GIGUE IN G MAJOR, K. 574")

HUIZENGA: Mozart may have absorbed some of that radical sound from one of his heroes, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The second eldest son of Johann Sebastian and another Olafsson favorite, C.P.E. Bach's music features crazy hairpin turns, abrupt stops and a freewheeling off-the-cuff feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH'S "RONDO II IN D MINOR, H. 290")

HUIZENGA: Music of Joseph Haydn, Mozart's idol, makes an appearance on this album in a swift yet elegant rendition of the 47th Sonata. And so does music by Domenico Cimarosa, a comic opera genius for whom Mozart once wrote an aria. Here, Olafsson unearths and beautifully arranges one of Cimarosa's barely known keyboard sonatas brimming with operatic lyricism.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF DOMENICO CIMAROSA'S "SONATA NO. 42 IN D MINOR (ARR. OLAFSSON)")

HUIZENGA: I love how Vikingur Olafsson plays, but also how he thinks. This probing album that offers a Mozart attitude adjustment within the context of his peers ends with a sublime salute to one of the master's final pieces - a version of Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus," simple music that rises to the heavens.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART'S "AVE VERUM CORPUS, K. 618 (TRANSCR. LISZT FOR SOLO PIANO)")

SHAPIRO: The album is "Mozart & Contemporaries" by Vikingur Olafsson. Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKINGUR OLAFSSON PERFORMANCE OF WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART'S "AVE VERUM CORPUS, K. 618 (TRANSCR. LISZT FOR SOLO PIANO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.