Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson reflects on his contemporary inspirations


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Víkingur Ólafsson — From Afar (DG)

New Classical Tracks - Víkingur Ólafsson

“I'm not shy when meeting people. I have met many fantastic people in my life. But meeting György Kurtág felt different to me. I had this feeling of awe,” Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson said.

He was starstruck last year when out of the blue, he was invited to Budapest to meet the 96-year-old Hungarian composer. Their 10-minute meeting turned into several hours of musical discovery. After, Ólafsson decided to send Kurtág a letter in the form of an album. That musical letter is his latest double album, From Afar.

“When I got home from that life-changing experience, I did two things,” he said. “I silenced the notifications on my phone because I wanted to feel the kind of freedom of timelessness that is Kurtág. And the second thing was to start work on this album because I realized I wanted to send a letter in the form of an album.

“All the musical ideas and eight pieces by Kurtág are spread throughout the album. I juxtaposed them with music that I thought connected very strongly to his esthetic,” he said. “But also include music that was from my own musical past. I was done recording the album on the grand piano on day two or three, and then I started to record it again on the upright piano, which was inspired by my quartet. Kurtág loves the upright piano.

“I couldn't really choose between my two children, the grand piano recording or the upright piano recording for the whole album,” Ólafsson said explaining the mix of pianos. “I decided you should never choose between your children. I decided to release both versions simultaneously, which I think has never been done before.”

Can you talk about performing on both pianos?

“There's this one little piece, Sleepily, by Kurtág, which is an absolutely amazing piece of music. In that piece, he conveys the idea of going from consciousness to falling asleep. He has tone clusters and these incredibly soft glissandos that are supposed to be like a musical yawn.

“For the grand piano, I would actually prefer Brahms. His Intermezzo, Op. 116, No. 4 is the crown jewel of Brahms' late works, in my opinion. There are many jewels there, but that is my queen. That's my favorite. I love the overtones, the richness of the bass and the bigger vibrations from the Steinway.”

Can you talk about the pieces you and your wife, Halla, are featured on?

“One is J.S Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 1 that's already been released as a single. It's just an amazing piece of music that Kurtág recently dedicated his transcription of it to me. It's one of my favorite arrangements. I'm beyond grateful for that dedication.”

What are some of the personal secrets that are hidden within this recording?

“This recording has my first attempt at arranging or transcribing something that's not for solo piano. It's ‘Ave Maria.’ It's one of my favorite songs. It was dedicated to my now wife, but then girlfriend back in 2007 when she was only 20 and I was 23.”

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Víkingur Ólafsson — From Afar (DG store)

Víkingur Ólafsson — From Afar (Amazon store)

Víkingur Ólafsson (official site)

349 episodes