Artist of the Year

Why Víkingur Ólafsson for Artist of the Year? Now 35, the Icelandic pianist has been making increasingly big waves in the music world, from his early recordings on home-grown labels to his signing by DG in 2017. And his career is flourishing – the current season sees him playing concertos that range from Mozart and Beethoven via Schumann to Thomas Adès and Daníel Bjarnason, not to mention the premiere of John Adams’s Second Piano Concerto under the baton of the composer.

I was late to the party – when I first heard about him, and that his debut disc for DG was of Philip Glass, I was somewhat dismissive, Glass being a composer whose music I cordially loathe. Was this – with the record company’s highly stylised marketing visuals – going to be a case of style over substance? When I was sent his Bach to review, humble pie was to be dish of the day, for of course it turned out that Ólafsson was very much the real thing.

Pwyll ap Siôn, reviewing the Glass, drew comparison with Glenn Gould, which is absolutely apt in the sense that Ólafsson has the gift of making something familiar entirely his own, drawing you into a world where no other interpretation seems possible.

And there’s also a sense of right time, right place. I remember back in the mid-1990s a heated squabble, sorry, debate, during the Gramophone Awards voting when one illustrious reviewer suggested that Maria João Pires’s (to my ears cherishable) disc of Bach had no place in the line-up given its patent inauthenticity. Fortunately such arguments are now utterly outmoded and, as Ólafsson puts it in his wonderfully warm and perceptive essay, when it comes to Bach interpretation: ‘There is no single correct solution. This is a strangely liberating realisation: with one of the greatest creators in music history, it is simply unavoidable for the aspiring performer not to become something of a co-creator.’

That notion of co-creator really sums up his Bach album. Sometimes he makes you rethink a piece entirely – such as in Wilhelm Kempff’s transcription of the Chorale Prelude Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein, which he turns into something irresistibly airborne.

In the booklet he talks about different styles of Bach playing that have influenced him – Edwin Fischer, Rosalyn Tureck, Dinu Lipatti, Glenn Gould, Martha Argerich – yet what’s compelling is that he has absorbed the work of these titans and created something entirely his own. Touching too is his transcription of the tenderly beautiful aria from Bach’s Cantata BWV54; and the fact that he finds a place on the programme for the long-outmoded August Stradal, whose love for octave doublings are, in Ólafsson’s hands, turned into something that might even be described as subtle.

Some artists flourish in the studio but can disappoint live. Not Ólafsson – his imagination is always put to good use, as is his palette of many hues. I particularly recall an encore of Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux which made me think a disc (or two) of keyboard music by the great Frenchman would be very nice. How about it? Harriet Smith

The Artist of the Year Award is sponsored by Classic FM

Special Awards 2019

Recording of the Year | Orchestra of the Year | Label of the Year | Artist of the Year | Young Artist of the Year | Lifetime Achievement | Special Achievement | Concept Album 

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