Classical Album of the Week: Pianist Vikingur Ólafsson's Beautiful Tribute To Debussy and Rameau

Jan 11, 2021

January 11. 2021. Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson’s third release for Deutsche Grammophon captivates with every note and poses an intriguing question. What connects two French masters—Claude Debussy and Jean-Philippe Rameau—despite the difference of over a century, the difference of the keyboard instruments they wrote for, and the difference of two contrasting stylistic eras of music?

It turns out, under Ólafsson’s hands, a lot.

This generous album of 28 selections shows how Jean-Phillipe Rameau, Baroque master of the harpsichord, and Claude Debussy, Impressionist composer who wrote for the modern piano, share common threads. The pianist brings to each composer’s works a similar elegance, clarity of line, and emotional coherence.

Watch Ólafsson play Rameau's interlude "The Arts and the Hours" from the opera, Les Boréade in a socially distanced performance in 2020:

Ólafsson is a pianist who has forged an intelligent career path, and it shows in his playing. Born into a musical family, educated in his native Iceland and at Juilliard, he received an artists’ stipend from his country and produced TV shows about classical music. He eschewed competitions. As a result, there is nothing coldly competitive or “show-offy” about his playing.

This is obvious from the first number on the album, Debussy’s piano transcription of the prelude from his cantata “La demoiselle élue” (the Blessed Damozel). Ólafsson’s phrasing sings, and he spins those phrases in a languorous, unhurried manner. He brings these same qualities to Rameau’s “L’entretien des Muses” ("Conversation of the Muses") and “La Cupis.”

Ólafsson’s delicacy and speed animate Debussy’s “Serenade of the Doll” and “The Snow is Dancing” from Children’s Corner, as well as Rameau’s “Les tourbillons” (whirlwinds.)

Quiet joy is evident in Ólafsson’s rendition of the beloved Debussy prelude “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” Exuberant joy is clear in Rameau’s “La joyeuse.”

Ólafsson lets loose his virtuosic side in Rameau’s “Les cyclopes,” (Cyclops) —he emulates the crispness of harpsichord attack and articulation, but with the bass sonority of the modern piano. This contract is just as compelling in the crystalline waves of sound and moments of dissonant anxiety in “Ondine” from Debussy’s Preludes Book Two.

One of my favorite selections on the album is the quiet Debussy prelude, ”Des pas sur la neige,” meaning "Footsteps in the Snow" in French.  Ólafsson’s approach is not hesitant, but steady, almost plodding; one can feel the icy landscape all around, the quiet of a country blanketed in snow.

To cap off his tribute to both Debussy and Rameau, Olafsson’s final selection on the album is Debussy’s “Hommage à Rameau.” His interpretation is both thoughtful and loving—as is the entire album.