Much like Yann Tiersen and Ludovico Einaudi, the young pianist Gabriel Ólafs comes from the modern school of instrumental performers centered on mood over virtuosity. Based in Iceland, Ólafs’ music shares more in common with the art-rock artists of his homeland (Sigur Rós, Sóley) than prominent contemporary classical pianists (Timo Andres, Nico Muhly). Piano Works, his latest release featuring eight rather stunning solo instrumental pieces, is devoid of empty showmanship, technical posturing, or any shallow attempts to dazzle the listener. Instead, Ólafs focuses on mood and emotive gestures to develop pieces, both concise yet brimming with beauty.
With its high-range arpeggios and repeated bass notes, “Intro” reveals shades of Philip Glass. The work is about soundscape, articulating a placid aura through minimal means, and at less than 90 seconds, it accomplishes all it needs to with brevity. Second track “Birta” opens with a melancholy melody set against a spacious introduction before leading into a charming toybox waltz. It’s not difficult to hear the influence of Tiersen here, but Ólafs pivots the melody just enough to sound innovative and evade the pitfalls of a pastiche exercise. Credit is due to Ólafs’ performance as much as his compositional prowess. The touch of his left hand makes the accompaniment sound steady yet not without soul, a micro-study in motion and gentle drive.
A solo rerecording of “Absent Minded”, the title track from his previous record, places Ólafs into Chopinistic territory. The murmurs and leaps of the melody have enough quirk and character to bear repetitions without sounding tired or monotonous. Compared to his previous recording, this version sounds more direct, less contemplative, yet no less sincere or serene. “Absent Minded” also reveals the rawness and intimacy that makes Piano Works feel so special. You can hear the workings of the piano–the clicks of the hammers, the ticks of the sustain pedal–elements most engineers may consider imperfections, but here they sound perfect. Hearing these physical artifacts of performance makes the record sound human, giving the perceptive listener a sense of life beyond the notes and the chords. In effect, you hear Ólafs not only as the composer and performer, but the individual as well, a figure of musical talent and intimate delivery.
Amidst all of this, “Loa (variation)” feels strikingly different with the inclusion of electronics and backward sounds. The piano takes a back seat to a dreamlike digital ambiance, an electroacoustic palette cleanser that, even if for less than two minutes, reveals another dimension of instrumental music. “Cyclist Waltz” is another gentle miniature that effuses a reflective, almost cinematic quality. Again, the ambient sounds of the piano reveal something deeper about the performance, something personal that a cleaner recording couldn’t capture.
While the moody pianistic aesthetic tires a bit as the record reaches its conclusion, Piano Works is an undeniably beautiful record. Thoughtful and pensive, Ólafs understands how to craft short yet expressive piano pieces that recall the intimate sensibility of 19th-century salons as much as modern Icelandic indie groups. It’s stirring to think how much he has accomplished by this point, and enticing to anticipate what we can expect in the future.