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From Afar (Víkingur Ólafsson)

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano) (DG)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

From Afar
Bartók: Three Hungarian Folksongs; Brahms: Fantasies, Op. 116 – excerpts; György Kurtág: Játékok – excerpts; R Schumann: Studies in Canonic Form, Op. 56 – excerpts; plus works by Adès, JS Bach, Sigvaldi Kaldalóns and Mozart
Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
DG 486 1681   95:43 mins (2 discs)

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Every performer I’ve ever spoken to who has met György Kurtág speaks of him with warmth and reverence. Now 95, the Hungarian composer seems in touch with the very essence of music – at least that’s what Víkingur Ólafsson found when he played for him in 2021 in Budapest. ‘It gave me a feeling of lightness and joy,’ the Icelandic pianist writes in his booklet note.

The result of that encounter was this album, From Afar, dedicated to Kurtág and built around a selection of pieces from his Játékok(Games). It has clearly been carefully programmed, with each of Kurtág’s concentrated miniatures mirrored by a related piece: ‘Sleepily’, with its mysterious glissandos, is followed by Schumann’s soothing ‘Träumerei’; the hushed ‘Flowers We Are’ is answered by Thomas Adès’s The Branch, written by the British composer for this very album. Often, the mood is one of strange beauty.

Arrangements abound. Bach is a guiding spirit for both Kurtág and Ólafsson, and his music appears here in versions by both musicians. And for sheer beauty, turn to Ólafsson’s own transcriptions of Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum’ and an Ave Maria by Kaldalóns, a composer from Iceland.

Throughout, the playing is thoughtful and full of poetry, recorded in intimate sound. There’s an elusive quality to this multi-faceted programme, for sure, but on balance it repays attentive listening. Plus, there’s a twist. Ólafsson records the programme twice: once on a grand piano, once on an upright. An odd choice, some might say, but there’s something rather magical about hearing this repertoire on the up-close intimacy of an upright piano, which is of course how so many of us first encountered the instrument.

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Rebecca Franks