GLASS Études – selection. Glassworks – Opening
In 2015, when Glass’s complete set of 20 Études for solo piano were presented – tag-team-style – by five different pianists (including the composer himself) at London’s Barbican Centre, the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson’s performances stood out for their rare combination of sheer technical brilliance, expressive control and interpretative depth. As Ivan Hewett pointed out at the time, hearing Ólafsson playing these études was ‘like listening to a true masterpiece’. Several impressive recordings of Glass’s Études – 10 of which are presented here – already exist by Glass luminaries including Maki Namekawa, Paul Barnes (both on Orange Mountain) and Bruce Levingston (Sono Luminus), but Ólafsson’s interpretations inhabit a unique, distinct and extraordinary world all their own.
It is tempting to draw comparison with Glenn Gould here. Like Gould, Ólafsson possesses that rare gift of illuminating a familiar work in unexpected ways, revealing hidden depths and drawing out its best qualities. In Glass’s music, each repetition is enriched by subtle changes in colour, voice-leading and articulation, as if Ólafsson were continually refreshing the page on his musical server.
In the ‘Opening’ from Glassworks, another pianist might have been content simply to execute twos against threes with clock-like precision. Ólafsson goes much further, drawing to the surface with every cycle each of the four lines latent in the piano’s texture. At other times Ólafsson adjusts both tone and expression from one repeated module to the next, such as in the one-bar variations of the quirky Étude No 14. Like Gould, there are idiosyncrasies here, and at times interpretative decisions that fly in the face of the printed score. But when the musical results are as overwhelmingly positive and impressive as they are here, then one can forgive occasional artistic leeway.
The superb Siggi Quartet join Ólafsson on two tracks in Christian Badzura’s creative re-imaginations of Étude No 2 and ‘Opening’ (the second of two versions recorded here), suggesting further pathways for future exploration by this breathtakingly brilliant pianist.