Pianist Gabriel Ólafs Champions Brevity Over Showmanship on 'Piano Works'

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.