Víkingur Ólafsson’s Proms debut, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi – Prokofiev, J.S. Bach, Mozart & Shostakovich

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)

J.S. Bach
Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV1056

Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491

Symphony No.9 in E-flat, Op.70

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Paavo Järvi

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

By recent Covid standards, this was a sell-out – Rausing Circle (rousingly) packed to the rafters, and similarly all four quadrants of the choir stalls.  The Arena seemed to have twice as many Prommers than usual this season, and there was a palpable sense of expectation. 

This was obviously the Ólafsson effect.  In a speech prefacing his two encores, Víkingur Ólafsson termed Paavo Järvi as a ‘superstar’ for stepping-in for the scheduled debut of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Principal Conductor Designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali, but in truth he himself was the superstar that brought a full audience. Or, as his record company Deutsche Grammophon describes him: “the fastest-streaming core-classical artists of our time”.  Oh, and he can play the piano too.

It was a rather curious programme, with two baroque and classical concertos framed by 20th-century Russian symphonies, with little connection between the outer flanks and the central filling.  Like Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic two nights earlier, Järvi opted for a bigger string section than expected with this season’s Proms: six double basses, with thirteen first-violins listed.  Initially, I was surprised at the full orchestra employed for Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony but it was, in performance, perfectly suited to the size of the hall.  It’s one of those works that I always feel I never need to hear again, but Järvi’s genial, rather than hectic, approach paid dividends and afforded his players to grow in London’s most generous concert hall acoustic. 

My vantage point was especially good for the woodwind, and if the Prokofiev was full of wonderfully turned phrases, it was nothing compared to Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony that ended the concert.  It might have been described as “a farrago of circus tunes, gallop rhythms and dated harmonic quirks” by Ernest Chapman, reviewing the UK premiere at the first First Night of the Proms after the war in 1946, but our understanding of it now is so different. Whatever your take on the political message behind the music (if, indeed, there is any), this is an orchestral masterpiece.  And not without emotional depths in its turning away from the frivolity of the odd-numbered movements.  Mark van de Wiel’s second-movement clarinet solo dying to an on-the-edge-of-audibility pianissimo was matched by Emily Hultmark’s aching bassoon solo of the fourth movement, melting into the mood-changing jaunty theme of the final, to end the symphony as it had begun, effervescent and punchy in Järvi’s assured hands.

In a different world the central block of this concert turned the clock back a couple of centuries.  Fulfilling “a dream of my whole life”, Ólafsson made his eagerly awaited Proms debut with two concertos.  First was J. S. Bach’s F-minor Keyboard Concerto, Ólafsson re-establishing a tradition of playing this concerto on a piano, Järvi nearly halving his string section (three double basses etc).  Refined and focused, with little regard to period style, Ólafsson fashioned his own way with it, gently supported by the orchestra, with a highlight the rapt, pizzicato-accompanied central Largo. 

He held the audience in expectant ecstasy, a mood continued in Mozart’s C-minor Concerto, performed looking forward to the 19th century – especially as it is Mozart’s only concerto to require oboes and clarinets – which points eloquently as to how Beethoven loved this work, composing his own Third Piano Concerto in the same key.  Unfussy and crystal clear in his finger work, Ólafsson eschewed private intimacy for a more declamatory account, though not without subtler moments.  Mozart’s characterful wind writing with interlacing solos and transfers of themes came through equally clearly and the partnership with Järvi and the Philharmonia was secure and collegiate. 

Ólafsson provided his own first-movement cadenza, and – after the rapturous reception – he was eventually cajoled into playing two encores, both core to his approach to Bach and Mozart, in arrangements from the 19th century. August Stradal’s transcription of the slow movement of Bach’s fourth Organ Sonata (BWV526) was achingly intense and intimate. He then returned for Liszt’s transcription of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.  He can definitely make time stand still with his unique capacity to conjure up the past (in many senses two pasts – both that of the original composer and arranger) and make it sound wholly his own in the present.

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