Review: A Pianist Explores Mozart the Late Bloomer

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Mozart, the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson deadpanned from the stage at Zankel Hall on Tuesday evening, was a “late bloomer.” The audience chuckled at the thought of one of history’s great child prodigies, dead at 35, taking a long time to find his gifts.

It was the rare occasion I’ve heard a laugh during a recital. Most musicians seem a bit lost when you hand them a microphone. Ólafsson grabs it near the base and manipulates it confidently, like a stand-up comic: wry and self-deprecating.

At 38, he has appeared little in New York, and never before at any of Carnegie Hall’s spaces. It is as a recording artist that many here have known him, an identity he embraced on Tuesday, playing without alteration — and, other than an intermission, without pause, as if you were listening to the CD — the program of his most recent album, “Mozart and Contemporaries.”

His late bloomer comment was a joke, but only partly — fitting for a concert that focused on Mozart’s artistic growth in the 1780s, his final full decade. Ólafsson’s aim was both to bring the master down to earth — interspersing him with pieces from around the same time, in a similar style, by Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Domenico Cimarosa and Baldassare Galuppi — and to elevate him back to the heavens, bathing the audience in just shy of 90 minutes of aching beauty.

Yes, there was some variety, but not so much. Ólafsson’s enemy here is the traditional piano recital, defined by vivid contrasts — of period, of mood. His touch is acute and pearly, his attack is hardly muted when warranted, and not nearly all of this music is slow or mellow. Even so, “Mozart and Contemporaries” came off as an unbroken, unfurling, hypnotically broad, almost dreamlike silk of sound, inward-looking and wistful in both major and minor keys, in both andante and allegro.

For the listener — particularly to the live version, its peaks and valleys smoother than on the recording — the feeling eventually approached that of an insect encased in amber: surrounded by beauty, even trapped by it. So much sublimity is hard to take.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t sublime — in the essayistic bursts of a Bach rondo or in the wintry-field longing of Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor (K. 397); the delicacy of that composer’s K. 494 Rondo or the dash of another, K. 485; an alert rendition of Haydn’s B minor Sonata; intimate movements from Galuppi and Cimarosa; and a clear, keen interpretation of Mozart’s “Sonata Facile” in C (K. 545).

Ólafsson’s lucidity was ideal for the high spirits of the not even two minutes of Mozart’s K. 574 Gigue — but he also brought out its subtly sophisticated, world-spanning harmonies, the sense of bounding over an immense distance. (He said after intermission that the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen told him this is a “cosmic” gigue.)

The second half was dominated by three expansive adagios, starting with Ólafsson’s arrangement of the slow movement from the String Quintet in G minor (K. 516). A movement from Galuppi’s Sonata in C minor (evoking, like so much of Scarlatti, the strum of a Spanish guitar) led into the intensity of Mozart’s Sonata in the same key (K. 457) — the obsessiveness of its finale, the snow-globe tenderness of its Adagio. Then came the brooding, singing Adagio in B minor (K. 540), and Liszt’s ivory-pristine transcription of the “Ave Verum Corpus.”

“It’s very hard to play something after ‘Ave Verum,’” Ólafsson said, quieting the applause by sitting back down at the piano bench. And then, with perfect timing: “But it’s not impossible.”

He did the slow movement from J.S. Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4, pealing yet contained, and superb.

Víkingur Ólafsson

Performed on Tuesday at Zankel Hall, Manhattan.

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