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Claude Debussy: La Damoiselle élue: Prélude - selections from Estampes - Children’s Corner - Préludes - Images
Jean Philippe Rameau: selections from Pièces de clavecin - Pièces de clavecin en ronces - Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin
Rameau/Ólafsson: The Arts and the Hours

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
Recording: Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavík, Iceland, August 2019 – 79’
Deutsche Grammophon 48377015 (Distributed by Universal Music) – Booklet in English and German

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is getting star treatment from Deutsche Grammophon, and the label can’t be faulted for investing in his talent. He is featured on releases of J.S. Bach (original and ‘reworked’ versions) and Philip Glass, and is incredibly impressive on this imaginative program of Debussy and Rameau.

Ólafsson weaves deftly from Debussy to Rameau in thoughtfully-curated sets. As the pianist himself sets out in his booklet essay, “Despite very different historical circumstances, both possessed a rare kind of relentless, intellectual independence—the kind that shifts paradigms.” Similar independence is clear in Ólafsson’s interpretive choices.

Listening through the recital, Ólafsson consistently applies different interpretive stances to the two composers. Debussy’s music is, by its nature, more thoroughly notated, and Ólafsson is faithful to the composer’s indications. There is no excess here, no extraneous pedaling, no push and pull of the tempo unless requested by Debussy. His thrillingly propulsive account of “Jardins sous la pluie” is one of the best I’ve heard in a while. The icy remove he brings to “La Fille aux cheveux de lin” paradoxically makes the piece sound all the more ‘Romantic.’

The Rameau pieces, most far less familiar, are thoroughly colorized by Ólafsson. Here, dynamics, pedaling and ornamentation are tastefully applied to the enticing miniatures. The achingly beautiful “La Cupis” and propulsive fingerwork in “La Poule” and “Les Sauvages” are highlights in a delightful, representative sampling of Rameau’s keyboard ingenuity.

Ólafsson’s own compositional offering, “The Arts and the Hours,” is attractive if not necessarily memorable. The only slight disappointment of the disc is that it concludes with Debussy’s “Hommage à Rameau,” an obvious choice but not top-drawer music from this composer.

The album’s recorded sound couldn’t be clearer or cleaner, and Ólafsson’s booklet essay adds perspective to his stance as a musician. Those curious about the Rameau works, in particular, should not hesitate in picking up this attractive album.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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