The first album of the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson features the brilliant Eroica Variations by Beethoven as well as two opposing cycles by Johannes Brahms: the autumnal 7 Fantasies Op. 116 and the elegant 16 Waltzes Op. 39.
Notes on the music by Vikingur
The seven dark and deeply personal Fantasies Op. 116 (1892) stem from the last creative period in Brahms’ life. The three volatile Capriccios (No. 1, 3 and 7) reveal stormy and desperate realms while the four Intermezzos share an underlying feeling of autumnal solitude. The fourth and central fantasy, originally titled Nocturne, is the most expansive work in the cycle. The dreamy and reflective music has an improvisatory feel, not entirely unrelated to the great nocturnist Fréderich Chopin (1810-49) in spirit. The sonorities are warm while doubt and fragility are never far away – a juxtaposition which is found in the other intermezzos as well. The subsequent intermezzo elaborates further on the feeling of uncertainty. Its progressive harmonies provoke strange emotions of reserved frustration, which balance out beautifully in a comforting central episode. The melody and chords of the sixth fantasy are beautifully interwoven and the music resembles a chorale, slowly unfolding in a thick web of expressive lines. The last fantasy is angry, even demonic. There is little relief to be found in the shivering central episode and the cycle concludes in epic fashion with an infernal intensity that keeps growing to the very last note.
If the Fantasies portray the more obscure and struggling dimensions of Brahms, the 16 Waltzes Op. 39 (1865) reveal the joyous and effortless side of his music. One of Brahms’ greatest strengths was to create masterpieces out of limited material, merging supreme craftsmanship with noble poetry. The waltzes are good examples of this, being accessible and simple at first glance, yet revealing greater depth at further listening; it can be said that Brahms reaches the celestial by giving wings to the worldly. He worked on the waltzes in Vienna and the influence of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), the city’s favorite son whom Brahms greatly admired, is clearly heard throughout. Many of the brisker waltzes incorporate Hungarian elements while the slower ones often portray pastoral peacefulness. The penultimate waltz, a tender lullaby, ranks with Brahms’ most famous works while the the last waltz closes the collection unexpectedly in sadness and doubt.
“You don’t know what it means to the likes of us when we hear his footsteps behind us.” This remark, made by Brahms on the dilemma of composing a symphony in the post-Beethoven era, perfectly sums up his admiration for the old master as well as revealing his frustration of inevitably feeling like he was lurking in his shadow. The two composers shared an affinity for the Theme and Variation form; the art of exploring and varying given material stated in the beginning of a work. At its most successful, the result is a multi-movement large scale narrative whose separate movements are all constructed from the same elements while maintaining absolute individuality. Beethoven’s 15 Variations and a Fugue Op. 35 (1802) is a brilliant example of such a work which tells many colorful short stories that blend smoothly into a grand whole. This is the music of extroversion and unpredictability, as well as the humor and extreme contrasts so characteristic of Beethoven. The opening slowly unfolds and builds up in layers; at first, only the bass line is heard, then one voice adds upon another and after the arrival of the fourth voice (a quattro) the theme is finally stated. After the unusual and searching opening, 15 variations – different takes on the theme – follow in quick succession. The first 13 Variations are delightful in their simplicity. They are worry-free and cheerful in spirit; this is surely a comedy rather than drama. However, Beethoven – never about the obvious – completely turns the corner and writes the most heartfelt and touching last two variations. They add spiritual dimension to the work and leave the listener in complete uncertainty in the final moments – epilogue – of the last variation. Following the variations comes a fugue – a musical structure which, while being in a single movement, somewhat relates to the theme and variation form in being based on the idea of repeated and reworked material, aiming for diversity through repetition. As the fugue’s momentum gathers pace and excitement, leading the listener to expect the conclusion of the work, Beethoven takes another surprising turn into a brief moment of uncertainty. But before long, the original variation theme returns, this time in victorious, yet almost meditative setting. And this time Beethoven manages to conclude the piece in a jubilant, yet noble, mood.
© Vikingur Olafsson
released May 17, 2009
Recorded and produced by Michael Silberhorn in the Mendelssohn Hall in Gewandhaus, Leipzig in October 2008.
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