Mozart & Contemporaries

Víkingur Ólafsson

Mozart & Contemporaries

“I wanted to approach Mozart as if I would be hearing him and playing him for the very first time,” Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson tells Apple Music. “In Mozart & Contemporaries, I tried to rid myself of some of my preconceptions, myths and baggage surrounding Mozart, because he was very much a part of his time and was aware of other composers.” Mozart dominates this album, of course, but Ólafsson also opens a window to several others who were doing equally extraordinary things at the same time as the 18th-century Austrian composer. “I wanted to enter Mozart’s musical ecosystem. He was certainly the genius among geniuses of the period and maybe in all of music history, but what this album shows is how awesome some of his contemporaries also were. And how wrong it is to neglect them and only focus on the big names.” And so with Mozart’s visionary Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457 and the charming, deceptively simple Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major Sonata, K. 545, Ólafsson brings alive the worlds of Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa—both of whose music has a beguiling sincerity—plus works by Mozart’s friend and mentor Joseph Haydn and his hero C.P.E. Bach (“Bach is the father, we are the children!”, Mozart is once said to have exclaimed). Just as important as the music itself is the way Ólafsson takes his listeners on a journey, his instinct for tonalities and moods creating a magical, seamless whole. “I think of this album like I do all my albums—as a collage composition,” he says. “Of course, I didn’t write the music. But when you create that kind of musical searching through an album, it kind of becomes a composition in itself. It has to tell a story.” Read on as Ólafsson guides us through that story in-depth.
”Piano Sonata No. 9 in F minor” “I love the idea of starting a Mozart album with somebody else, here Baldassare Galuppi. This piece is very interesting, because it’s kind of without melody and it’s very modern in that sense. It’s made up of these incredibly beautiful arpeggiated chords, and this kind of dream-like atmosphere that seems to be way ahead of its time, almost like Schubert. It’s got this altered state of consciousness between being awake and being in a dream.”
”Rondo in F Major, K. 494” “I had to think long and hard about what the album’s first Mozart piece should be. This rondo seems to me to be the essence of Mozart. Every time we hear the really simple, angelic theme, Mozart brings something completely different to it. There are all of these incredibly subtle variants and variations within it that make Mozart Mozart. It’s also quite operatic.”
”Rondo II in D Minor, H. 290 “I just love this piece [by C.P.E. Bach]. It’s so daring harmonically and it’s so wild. He’s such a wild cat. Mozart is always so polished and C.P.E. Bach isn’t polished very often, so he’s kind of a musical bad boy in that sense. There’s something so modern about it, almost neo-classical—it could almost have been by Stravinsky. It has the most incredible modulations.”
“Sonata No. 42 in D Minor” “When I first played the original version of this piece [by Domenico Cimarosa], it was pretty unspectacular and very much a musical skeleton. But the melody stayed with me, because it’s an amazing bel canto melody; Cimarosa was one of the most famous operatic composers of Mozart’s time. So I harmonised it, added some parts and changed the melody in one instance. I kind of recomposed it, but called it an arrangement!”
”Fantasia in D Minor K. 397 (Fragment)” “I've known this piece for a very long time, but I've never been happy about the ending. I don’t like how the D Major section just ends like it does. It’s so inconclusive. Mozart, however, didn’t finish it, and I think whoever it was, one of his contemporaries, finished it really unsuccessfully. I didn’t want to compose a new ending because this is Mozart, after all, so I decided to end with the minor section and link the piece to the ‘D Major Rondo’. So I created my own little ‘Fantasia and Rondo’ setup! I recorded this track on two different pianos. At the start, I use a very dark, beautiful-sounding piano, but for the violent outbursts, I use a different Steinway.”
“Rondo in D Major K. 485” “I play this considerably faster than many other recordings out there. But I just feel it’s Mozart, the pianist or keyboard master, who’s really writing this piece. It’s extremely virtuosic, and it’s written to please and to inspire awe. But it’s not a terribly serious piece of music. It’s like Mozart is showing off these wild modulations and his incredible keyboard skills.”
”Sonata No. 55 in A Minor” (Arr. Ólafsson) “This piece [by Domenico Cimarosa] wasn’t originally part of the album, but in the studio in one of the breaks, it was a melody that I just kept hearing in my head. So I sat down and transcribed it there and then with the microphone on. I just arranged it in real time and recorded it in real time. It’s a little bit like a Vivaldi sicilienne. It has a gorgeous golden melody.”
”Piano Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32" “I love this sonata [by Joseph Haydn] because it looks both forwards and backwards. It gazes into the Baroque period with this incredible minuet in the second movement and it foreshadows Beethoven in the ‘Presto’ finale. It appeals to me on so many different levels. Haydn is pushing more and more at the boundaries. It's a small sonata, yes, but it still has a weight to it.”
“Kleine Gigue in G Major, K. 574” “Another of Mozart’s totally anachronistic pieces, written on a pilgrimage that he made to Leipzig to visit the grave of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was one of the most difficult periods in Mozart’s life, when everything seemed to be against him. I think he wanted to take refuge from what was happening around him. And he writes this ‘Kleine Gigue’ in just one day in Leipzig. It feels, again, like Stravinsky and Bach, too. It’s so chromatic and just incredible.”
“Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 ‘Sonata facile’” “This is the first Mozart sonata I ever played. Everything in it is somehow perfection, so much so that pianists are afraid to play it. There are relatively few recordings of this piece and hardly any good ones, which took me by surprise. I think it’s because a lot of pianists learn it when they’re seven or eight. I was eight or nine when I learned it. Recording it for this album was the ultimate challenge, coming back to it in adulthood, freeing myself from my preconceptions about Mozart. In the first movement everything is so perfectly proportioned. The second movement is my favourite. It’s music of the most painful searching. And then it ends with this perfect little finale.”
“Adagio in E-Flat Major (Arr. Ólafsson from String Quintet No. 3 in G minor, K. 516” “This might be my favourite chamber piece of all time, for any medium, including all of the piano repertoire. Everything about it is unbelievable. It’s a little bit like Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor—it speaks to me on the most fundamental level. When I play it in this arrangement, I feel like Mozart composed it for the piano. It has a Schumann-esque lyricism, but it’s also like Schubert in the way that the harmonies simply stop, and we don’t know where we are.”
“‘Larghetto’ from Piano Sonata No. 34 in C Minor” “I also added this piece in at the last minute. It’s usually played very differently to the way I play it and the notation is a little bit different, too. But I found in it this kind of icy tranquillity. It’s winter music for me, almost like a meditation.”
“Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K. 457” “This is Mozart’s biggest piano piece—the seed for the 19th-century. It’s inconceivable, for instance, that Beethoven would have composed his Pathétique Sonata without hearing the first movement. Mozart pushes the limits of the instrument, which he often did in the late works. You have these huge dynamic contrasts and incredible experimentation with regards to performance markings in the score. It’s very unlike anything else he wrote for the piano. The second movement is one of Mozart's most expansive in all his keyboard music. The third movement for me is very operatic—the character is so defined. It’s full of apprehension and incredible contrasts. It’s interesting to see what Mozart would have written had he had a more powerful piano because he’s really pushing the limits of what was possible at the time.”
”Adagio in B Minor, K. 540” “In many ways, this piece is a kind of string quartet, but I wanted it to be an antithesis to the string quintet arrangement just before it. It’s one of Mozart’s most special works and the way it melts into B major in the last half-minute or so is amazing. It sort of wanders off, but you really don't know why.”
“Ave verum corpus, K. 618 (Trasncr. Liszt for Solo Piano)” “In his transcription, Liszt takes the key down a third to B major and it fundamentally changes the piece. It becomes darker and brighter at the same time. It’s one of his best transcriptions because he doesn't try to add too much to it. He's just presenting it in a new medium without adding superficial arpeggios and other effects. He lets the music be exactly what it is. I wanted to end the album with the myth of Mozart—Mozart as seen by Franz Liszt as the greatest of geniuses.”

Piano Sonata No. 9 in F Minor
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Rondo in F Major, K. 494
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Rondo II in D Minor, H. 290
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Sonata No. 42 in D Minor (Arr. Ólafsson)
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Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397 (Fragment)
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Rondo in D Major, K. 485
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Sonata No. 55 in A Minor (Arr. Ólafsson)
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Piano Sonata in B Minor, Hob.XVI:32
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Kleine Gigue in G Major, K. 574
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Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 "Sonata facile"
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Adagio in E-Flat Major (Arr. Ólafsson from String Quintet No. 3 in G Minor, K. 516)
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Piano Sonata No. 34 in C Minor
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Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K. 457
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Adagio in B Minor, K. 540
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Ave verum corpus, K. 618 (Transcr. Liszt for Solo Piano)
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