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Víkingur Ólafsson Wants To Change Your Mind About Mozart

Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson sets the music of Mozart amid his peers to offer a fresh take on the master composer.
Ari Magg
Deutsche Grammophon
Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson sets the music of Mozart amid his peers to offer a fresh take on the master composer.

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.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.