Above: Principal Guest Conductor of SSO- Sir Donald Runnicles. Featured Image: Visiting pianist Víkingur Ólafsson made his Sydney Opera House concert debut this week. Photo credit : Ari Magg.


It is fitting that Víkingur Ólafsson’s debut week at the Sydney Opera House, hosted by Sydney Symphony Orchestra concluded with a concert featuring Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. This pianist is heroically filling our generation with some revolutionary recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. These vary from Bach through Rameau, Ravel, Mozart and contemporaries, Debussy, Schumann, Brahms, Bartók, Gyorgy Kurtag, to more modern music from Icelandic nationals Birgisson and Kaldason.

This expressive pianist, equipped with a huge arsenal of control and options at the keyboard plus profound interpretative skill has become a hero and one of the strong leaders in our global recording and performance mileu. As Beethoven well knew, the term hero is not to be given lightly, is easily lost and carries much weight and drama with it.

Labelling Ólafsson as a contemporary hero of the music scene sits comfortably though. His recording success of interesting albums and prescence on music streaming platforms has brought many people to the world of classical piano, music of the last four centuries and to ‘classical’ music itself as an enjoyable musical option where ‘crossover’ need not be a phenomenon, label or watering down of the original works.

Víkingur Ólafsson demonstrated via his contemplative mix of a huge palette of keyboard sound with virtuosic dexterity during last Monday’s Goldberg Variations that he is a mighty keyboard intellect, a stunning musical personality and brave creator of new soundscapes within a well known work. The chance to hear this musician live is to witness him relishing any chance for resonance, innovative voicing, instantly becoming a mesmerising sharer of mood. He is seamlessly, innately and outwardly effortlessly able to communicate colour and scintillating shape at his instrument. His control and eloquence is both individual and intimate and is attractive for a wide range of listeners.

As it was with SSO’s presentation of his version of JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations earlier in the week, Ólafsson’s interpretation of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major was a svelte cavalcade of impressively articulated keyboard gesturing. Beautifully shaped utterances emerged one after the other, with finely wrought combinations of tone, voicing and breathtaking clarity. These qualities were equally present in both fiendishly difficult bravura and Ravel’s sparser lines of deceptive simplicity.

This pianist relished the chance to present Ravel’s compact and evenly constructed piano concerto. SSO joined him in some impressive ensemble playing. Neoclassical, jazz-influenced fare from Ravel was deliciously explored together by Ólafsson and the orchestra, led with warth and clarity by Donald Runnicles.

The solo piano was a perfectly placed sonic layer in the tapestry, bouncing thoughtfully off solo lines such as those from the oboe. Solos bounced beautifully across our local band.  All this was admirably harnessed  with requisite solid lightness by the guest conductor Runnicles. A highlight of this performance was an expertly paced sensitivity and direction in the Adagio assai. This treatment stopped time for me. The whole work smoothly forged a special place in our hearts and modern music minds.

Above: Members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform at the Sydney Opera House. Photo credit: Craig Abercrombie.

Preceding the Ravel piano concerto , SSO and Runnicles delivered four Debussy Preludes for piano in a much expanded arrangement for orchestra by Colin Matthews. A nice bracket of imagery with which to introduce the French flavour of this concert, the expansion of the piano pieces Minstrels, La puerto del Vino, Les sons et parfums tournent dans l’air du soir and Général Lavine alternated their character in the short pieces. The last prelude  a gorgeous romp with references to a show feel and entertainment figure. This nice segue reflected the jazz or modern feel of Ravel’s utterances to come.

Matthews’ arrangements, offering the discovery of orchestral opportunities in Debussy’s piano scores here in the hands of Runnicles and the expert SSO players  gave us wonderful new timbres to enjoy. Brass and wind excursions through parallel chords delivered lines of smooth, subtle chordal exquisiteness. Contrasts in keyboard register now shared across the orchestra, plus penetrating melodic fragments from Debussy’s piano texture were given fresh and renewed life here. The neat dramatic snapshots here were a perfect precursor to the cooler, less programmatic scenas to come in the Ravel. work

Both French brackets with innovations adapting the Germanic and other prelude or concerto styles were colourful modern moments. They prepared us for Beethoven’s innovations and expansion of the symphonic style in his Symphony No 3 Op 55 after interval. With the sounds and gestures for the French revolutionaries still decorating our minds, this performance of the Eroica from over a century before continued the neat and joyous delivery of the first half. On modern instruments, Runnicles and SSO players treated us to a focussed, never overplayed sound.

The genius of Beethoven’s inner aural essence or imagination and mastery of prolonged slow builds were expertly conveyed here. The undulating sections within this four-symphonies-in-one work sequence of movements were well-paced by this conductor and orchestra. Punctuations, Beethovenesque outbursts and clear characterisations were highlights of the kaleidoscopic nuance here. Huge climaxes celebrated the structure and texture, opening up the expression rather than overwhelming us.

The controlled, exciting nature of  all contrasts within the movements was also reflected in genuine contrasts between the work’s movements. Just as the four chosen Preludes showcased different aspects of character achievable from an orchestra, the four different legs of the ‘Eroica’ journey played by this orchestra under this conductor were refreshingly individual and complete in their successive newness. Once again, the sustained beauty in the second movement was a solemn, sustained, gentle moment with exquisite momentum.

The joyful and huge arc that rocketed us home in this work was definitely a finale of heroic but not ridiculous proportions. It betrayed a dedication  to careful and accurate delivery of Beethoven’s unique advancements in symphonic composition, speaking here in engagingly tight swathes of colour. This journey back in time from post WW1 France to the time of Napoleon was a worthwhile one. It made for a compelling, well-constructed, sensibly rendered conclusion to a memorable live concert experience.



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