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London, 2020

Debussy - Rameau came out on March 27, 2020 on Deutsche Grammophon (DG); it is however no earlier than a month after its release that I decided to start writing about Víkingur Ólafsson’s latest album. Enchanted by the Scandinavian musician when I first discovered him in 2018 (with Johann Sebastian Bach), I have come to realise that with him, time was necessary in order to absorb and understand fully the musical intentions behind a project. This reflection period has given opportunities for performance reviews to be written, and an opportunity for me to absorb Ólafsson’s philosophy of music. Since the pianist signed with the German label, his creatives choices and interpretations have always been of exquisite taste.


In effect, Ólafsson’s musical selections often surprise at first, until logic is understood. During the last couple of years, he has elegantly demonstrated the relationship between minimalism (Glass) and baroque (Bach), and it is now a new historical musical bond that he puts forward; the connection between impressionism (Debussy) and baroque (Rameau). The obvious is here avoided by not selecting other baroque composers such as Bach, Scarlatti or Couperin (that are all often favored to Rameau). Ólafsson’s selection is different; and it all makes perfect sense. The pianist demonstrates it beautifully. With the album structure, where Debussy embraces Rameau, he presents us with some of his own arrangements (Debussy’s “La Damoiselle élue”, originally a cantata, and The Hours and the Arts, an arrangement taken from Rameau’s tragedy Les Boréades) and a selection of keyboard works from the two French composers: Children’s Corner, Preludes, Images (including the “Hommage à Rameau” — Debussy was fascinated by the composer, and in his turn Ólafsson pays homage to both) and selected pieces from Pièces de clavecin.

Ólafsson’s interpretation is remarkable. Of course there is the technical performance (the articulation — the bouncing of the notes…) But to me what shines the most, is the talent of the pianist at bringing a modern quality to the music of composers that are so far from each other (and from us) — and who wrote on such different instruments (Rameau’s percussive harpsichord and Debussy’s liquid pedaled piano) —, and uniformising their music, erasing the boundaries of time. There is no baroque, there is no impressionism; there is just music. It is also known that Ólafsson has been recording all of his latest DG releases at the same location; The Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik, and that results in a sort of signature piano sound for the pianist. 

The musician brings out the imitative and impressionistic characters of the music of each composer. Whether in Rameau’s, with the descriptive elements of pastoral life or Debussy’s that has — somehow to his regret — been qualified as impressionist (or at times, symbolist); qualifications that although not pleasing to the composer, describe with precision the illustrative and evocative traits of his music. 


Ólafsson has both absolute pitch — the ability to identify a given note without a reference tone — and synesthesia — the association of sound with colors — and it reflects in his creative output. With Debussy - Rameau, the pianist extracts the images and colours of the composer’s works; he brings out the impressionism in Rameau (“Les Tourbillons”, “Le Rappel des oiseaux”) and the baroque in Debussy (“Jardins sous la pluie”); and to both contemporarism. From this musical combination, Ólafsson proves that the categorisation of music — whether stylistic or temporal — is an invention that, although brings order and understanding, benefits from disappearing from time to time in order to understand the greater sense of art. 


[Anecdotally, I once read that the first review of Ólafsson’s debut album did not deem it successful. Might its author be Ólafsson’s own Dick Rowe*?]


*Dick Rowe, one of Decca’s senior A&R, supposedly and infamously turned down The Beatles. 

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