On Monday Australia got to see and hear Icelandic piano sensation Víkingur Ólafsson for the first time in recital with his magnificent handling of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

On this night, in the first of series of four appearances with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Principal Guest Conductor Sir Donald Runnicles, we saw him in full concert mode playing what he describes as Ravel’s “perfect concerto”.

Sir Donald Runnicles conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo supplied

The work in G – not the one written for left hand only – is paired with Runnicles’ dynamic and sometimes revelatory reading of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and if you factor in four of Englishman Colin Matthews’ delicious orchestrations of Debussy’s piano Preludes you have pretty much the perfect concert as well.

If you can get a ticket for one of the remaining dates I strongly urge you to do so.

Ólafsson says Ravel’s concerto, with its duets between piano and various instruments, is an ideal way to get to know an unfamiliar orchestra.

From a whip crack it gets out of the starting gate in a mad flurry of arpeggios, Brent Grape’s trumpet leading the galloping rhythms, but soon it slows to a sultry canter as sliding brass announces the arrival of jazz and blues, before taking off again at full speed.

Throughout the movement Ravel tests the soloist with a glittering array of ever-changing rhythms, effects and colours, and Ólafsson’s playing simply transcends what you will hear from most other pianists.

The Frenchmen Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet both gave outstanding performances of the concerto here – Thibaudet with the London Philharmonic in 2009 and more recently Bavouzet with the SSO in 2022 – but I don’t recall having been so transported before.

If in the first movement Ólafsson was effortlessly brilliant in the gorgeous Adagio, modelled on Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, his clarity of tone and control of pace and dynamic was gemlike, including the trill that introduces the magical entry of Joshua Batty’s flute, its floating melody then being handed on to Shefali Pryor’s oboe and the clarinet of Guest Principal Maura Marinucci, of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, before being handed back to Batty.

But the crowning moment of the movement was the duet between Ólafsson’s piano filigree and Alexandre Oguey’s cor anglais.

At the end of both movements the Icelander had to hush enthusiastic clappers before embarking on the fierce finale with its blaze of orchestral colours behind the piano’s relentless race to the finishing line.

As if the concerto was not enough the audience was treated to a glorious encore in Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4 – six minutes of pianistic artistry from the delicate opening and relentless climb to the peak, then the dying away and the majestic thunderous return.

The musicians watched on, some appearing moved and astonished by what was unfolding, as if from another dimension.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Craig Abercrombie

After interval Runnicles injected such force into the two peremptory chords that introduce Eroica – a Napoleonic double punch to the guts – that the audience sat up, realising that the Scotsman was focused on getting all that he could out of his troops.

By way of coincidence, at the same time this symphony was being performed in the Opera House, fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout was just up the road at Angel Place playing and directing the ACO in that other Beethoven work associated with Bonaparte, the Emperor Concerto.

Runnicles had demonstrated all his trademark talent for bringing out the rich array of orchestral textures and shades in the Debussy and Ravel pieces of the first half. For the Beethoven he showed his grasp of structure and narrative. Entries were crisp, tempos finely judged – the Funeral March second movement with its fugal intricacy was a triumph – while the bouncy energy of the Scherzo shone a light on the wind section and the burnished trio of horns.

At times Runnicles, who was conducting from the score but without a baton, dropped his arms to his sides and swayed or danced gently in the pastoral landscape created by Batty’s flute.

The heroic culmination of the finale, after the persistent three-note interruptions of its opening, raised a huge cheer from the packed house.

But it was the stunning artistry of Ólafsson’s Australian debut that will live long in the memories of most of the audience.


Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Víkingur Ólafsson performs Ravel) is performed again on 22 March and 23 March, the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

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