What can a musician say with Mozart that hasn't been said before?
One could be excused for wondering if Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson had reached his limit on unearthing epiphanies when choosing to create an album and concert program set entirely in the 1780s, mostly Mozart with a handful of peers from the period.
Yes, his magnificent album of J.S. Bach topped the classical charts and his mix of Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claude Debussy was full of unexpected insights. But surely Mozart was turf too well-trod to offer fresh blossoms.
Any skeptics attending Sunday's recital at St. Paul's Ordway Music Theater likely left enlightened as to this 37-year-old pianist's brilliance as both pianist and programmer. Ólafsson provided a deeply absorbing exploration not only of how much Mozart could accomplish with short solo works for keyboard, but how the first stirrings of romanticism were emerging from his vision and those of such contemporaries as C.P.E. Bach and Joseph Haydn.
Each half of the Schubert Club concert unspooled like an engrossing story, propelled by tension that built, erupted and then receded. With 15 pieces on the program, it was a generous feast of pianism, leaving little doubt that Ólafsson is one of the most exciting artists working in the classical realm.
While it followed the track order of his latest album, "Mozart & Contemporaries," the sharp mood swings were more electrifying live, and the first half's progression from one complementary key signature to another seemed a stroke of satisfying musical wisdom, Ólafsson engaging with exceptional subtlety, touch and technical skill throughout.
Contrast was key to the first half, the 10 pieces uninterrupted by applause. Somber works often gave way to bright fancies before solemnity took hold again, slices of stormy Baldassare Galuppi and haunting Domenico Cimarosa shaken from their solemnity by bright and breezy Mozart (two Rondos) or his unfinished Fantasy No. 3, conveying a struggle between sadness and acceptance.
The arc of each half reached an apex of thunderous proto-romanticism. Before intermission, that came on a fiery, turbulent interpretation of Haydn's very Beethoven-esque Sonata No. 47 in B minor.
The darker second half set sail with Ólafsson's arrangement of the slow movement from a Mozart String Quintet, pushing aside any misgivings about the pianist's ability to take us to fresh destinations with Mozart. The climax of the all-minor-key collection of five pieces was Mozart's Sonata No. 14, on which the pianist enhanced the drama with strategic use of the pedals, making it resonant in all the right places.
That could have proven a cathartic finale, but Ólafsson made the moment all the more powerful by following it with a beautiful and intensely sad Adagio in B minor. Leaving behind the 14th Sonata's air of confidence, the Adagio held the questioning voice of a composer struggling with uncertainty.
When the program resolved in Franz Liszt's transcription of Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," it felt like a concluding elegy, miles in mood from the concert's early playfulness.
Few remained seated during the resulting ovation, which inspired an encore of transcendent beauty, a slow movement from a J.S. Bach Organ Sonata that whetted the appetites of those fortunate enough to hold tickets to Tuesday's sold-out Schubert Club Mix concert at Aria. There, Ólafsson will mix music of Bach with that of contemporary American composer Philip Glass.
What: Works by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.
Where: Aria, 105 N. 1st St., Mpls.
Tickets: $33, sold out, but a waiting list is available at 651-292-3268 or Schubert.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. firstname.lastname@example.org.