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Pianist presents dreamy, snoozy images of ‘The North’

By Charles T. Downey,

“Nordic Cool,” the name of the Kennedy Center’s cultural festival this year, evokes many characteristics of the world’s northern regions: its vastness, its emptiness, its frigidity, its silence.

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Olafsson took Glenn Gould’s cryptically autobiographical thoughts on this “Idea of North” as the basis of an odd recital, “The North Is a State of Mind,” that he performed at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Monday night.

As it turned out, this wan and bloodless program, consisting mostly of dreamy music dreamily played, was more like “Nordic Mellow.” Olafsson has a delicate touch at the keyboard and chose mostly sedate, less challenging fare to highlight that aspect of his playing, his sense of rubato mostly focused on slowing down.

Saccharine renditions of the Brahms’s Three Intermezzos, Op. 117, made Brahms, of all people, seem like a wilting violet. And two wintry pieces by Debussy — “The Snow Is Dancing” from “Children’s Corner” and the prelude “Des pas sur la neige” — felt slow and affected.

A few more daring choices – Debussy’s prelude “Feux d’artifices,” the outer movements of Grieg’s “Holberg Suite,” and Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s “Liebestod” — were dotted throughout the recital to show off Olafsson’s technical acumen, but the overall impression was a wispy, soft-focus sentimentality.

Haukur Tomasson’s “White Open Space,” composed specifically for the festival, was atmospheric and droningly repetitive.

Sibelius’s first sonatina, from Op. 67, was one of the high points in its simplicity , after which Snorri Birgisson’s folk song arrangements and Olafsson’s own arrangements of two Romantic vocal works by Icelandic composers, seemed snoozy by comparison.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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