The place to go these days to hear French piano music is Iceland. The best-selling, innovative Bach interpreter Víkingur Ólafsson has taken a pair of French composers two centuries apart and effectively melded their music into one by the simple method of interleaving short pieces across a whole album.
The outcome is astonishing in respect of both Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918), revealing unsuspected aspects in both masters, as well as an underlying French expression in their music. Turn, for instance, from two little amusements in Debussy’s Children’s Corner to three Pièces de clavecin by Rameau and you remain quite comfortably within the same culture, the same formality and finesse, the same realm of understanding.
Heard beside Debussy, Rameau sounds more like JS Bach than I have heard before. Heard before and after Rameau, Debussy is less impressionistic, more direct. What the Icelander has found here is more penetrative and profound than a Titanic full of tenured musicologists and historically informed vegan performers. Not to mention the sheer sensual pleasure he delivers to the ear.
The album was recorded in Reykjavik last summer in the new Harpa concert hall by a team from the Genuin label. My only cavil is that the booklet fails to mention what piano is being played. The lower register sounds like a Steinway, but the middle and upper tones are too ethereal for one of those big beasts. We need to know. Meantime, enjoy. This is easily the most interesting release of the year, so far.
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