sat 18/09/2021

Ólafsson, Philharmonia, Järvi, BBC Proms review - a ravishing Proms debut | reviews, news & interviews

Ólafsson, Philharmonia, Järvi, BBC Proms review - a ravishing Proms debut

Ólafsson, Philharmonia, Järvi, BBC Proms review - a ravishing Proms debut

Musical time-travel from top Icelander, Estonian and great London orchestra

Vikingur Ólafsson spun quiet magic in the slow movements of Bach and MozartAll images by Mark Allan

What does it mean to be Classical? It’s the question award-winning Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has consistently asked in a career that has collided music from Bach to Debussy, presenting them as part of a single conversation and continuum.

Here, in a striking BBC Proms debut, he continued to probe and challenge, with a little help from the Philharmonia Orchestra and Paavo Järvi.

A late substitute for the Philharmonia’s new music director Santtu-Matias Rouvali (a casualty of pandemic travel logistics), Järvi was able to present the programme unchanged, preserving the careful logic that took us from the neoclassical wit and affection of Prokofiev’s First Symphony to the bitter, backward-glancing mischief of Shostakovich’s Ninth – two works that play with scope of both forces and duration, asking us to measure them up against 18th-century models and laugh at distortions, interrogate exaggerations.

More of those later. But first Ólafsson, the reason – surely – the Royal Albert Hall was almost back to normal capacity after a sparse couple of weeks. It may have been his first time at the Festival, but the 37-year-old pianist proved that he more than has the measure of this trickiest of spaces and its audience. Olafsson, Jarvi and the Philharmonia at the PromsPlaying Bach on a modern concert-grand, with a Shostakovich-sized string section behind him, he quickly rejected any sense of pastiche. Where there were moments of quiet in Bach’s F minor Keyboard Concerto (and you could almost hear the scuttle of the Royal Albert Hall’s many mice as we leaned in as one to hear Ólafsson spin the right-hand melody of the Largo as if from a spider’s web) they were choices, recalibrations. The limpid horizon-line of sound startled amongst the strikingly vertical playing of the outer movements, rhythms and counterpoint punched out with absolute clarity.

There was more of that verticality in Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto No. 24, where Ólafsson’s lines dropped like pebbles through the orchestra’s translucent texture. Cadenzas managed to look both back to Bach and forward to Chopin, drawing out the commonalities and the continuity – a gesture elegantly extended in two encores, where we heard Bach and Mozart again but this time through 19th-century ears, in transcriptions by Stradal and Liszt. As Ólafsson left (the audience would happily have kept him at it all evening) it felt like the conversation was just beginning. Paavo Jarvi at the PromsBut Järvi and the Philharmonia were there to keep it going. After an unexpectedly ruminative account of the Prokofiev, finding the wit but scaling it back from public joke to whispered aside, the Gavotte just a little too nice, too polite for the space, the Shostakovich had welcome breadth. The trombones had been waiting all night for their punchlines and didn’t hold back, but it was the orchestra’s wind section who were the stars here – whether Emily Hultmark’s bassoon, crooning out its haunting, horrifying song, or the progressive chill that moved through through clarinet, flute, horn and piccolo, recasting Mozartian wind-band sonorities as something more sinister.

Only in the closing Allegro did we realise how much Järvi had been keeping in reserve. So effectively had he and Ólafsson reset our ears, that Shostaovich’s finale arrived with all the shock of 1945 – a journey through time achieved with serious skill and just a sprinkle of musical wizardry.

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