On the road and in the studio with Víkingur Ólafsson

Víkingur Ólafsson photographed by © Ari Magg

It has been a hectic year for Víkingur Ólafsson. Not only has the Icelandic pianist recorded and released his latest album for Deutsche Grammophon, but also relaunched his active touring life as concert-going has become a part of our everyday lives again, at least to some degree. Alongside professional engagements, there’s intense family life going on as well.    

Caught for interview on a tour performing Philip GlassJohann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with Camerata Salzburg, the pianist is full of enthusiasm for new music. A couple of weeks earlier, he launched the year 2022 with the world premiere of the young Finnish composer Sauli Zinovjev’s Piano Concerto (2019) with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Klaus Mäkelä at the Helsinki Music Centre on 7 January.

”I was so very happy that Sauli wanted to write a concerto for me and Klaus, who such a great musician. I had heard some of Sauli’s pieces and found him a composer with really his own voice. That’s what I’m always looking for with composers.”

Scored for solo piano and full orchestral line-up with variety of percussion, the circa thirty-minute concerto makes great use of the expressive potential of the soloist, the conductor and the instrumental forces at play. 

”The concerto is in the grand tradition of the concerto. Sometimes composers are shy to write a concerto and have the soloist as a narrator. Instead, they come up with something that is, basically, expensive chamber music.” 

Cast in three movements, the concerto sets forth with Misterioso ma preciso opening, followed by Tranquillo slow central movement and a closing Rondo, marked Allegretto

”The score in conceived with clockwork precision. It is a fantasy you go into. And it goes into tradition and out of tradition. The two first movements are quite introverted, and there’s a first movement cadenza that is an anti-cadenza. Instead of traditional, virtuoso cadenza, it feels like going underwater. 

And the concerto has a great third movement and a terrific coda. The ending is absolutely fantastic, which is something you can’t say that about every concerto. It is very much tailor-made for me and Klaus. There’s a wonderfully Bachian cadenza in the third movement, which is Sauli’s nod to my Bach album.”

Commissioned in 2017, the concerto was initially scheduled to receive its world premiere in April 2020, but that performance, alongside everything else, fell pray to the pandemic.    

”That concert was actually my first Covid cancellation back then. The first new date we could find for the premiere was in January 2022.”

Eventually the second premiere date itself became close to cancellation also as new lockdown measures were imposed by the Finnish authorities. 

”I freaked out a bit, when I heard that Finland was closing the concert halls again around Christmas. It is a scandal, really, given that the bars are still open there. 

In any case, I was happy that we were able to perform it in broadcast, even though it is the kind of piece, which, I believe, would have made a huge impact on an in-house audience. However, had we not done it now, we would have had to postpone the premiere all the way to 2024. And it would not have been fair to Sauli.” 

Available for streaming on the Finnish Broadcasting Company’s streaming service, Areena, the world premiere performance allows the listener to take a deep dive into its multi-faceted realm.

”The concerto can take a lot of returns; you find something new every time.”

Coming in the heels of the Zinovjev premiere, the next commission is very much in the making with Ólafsson, as he prepares to give the first performances of Daníel Bjarnason’s Piano Concerto (No. 3) (2021) with Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Alain Altinoglu on 11 February, followed by the US premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen on 18-20 February as well as the Icelandic premiere with the composer conducting the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on 2 March. 

”This season is killing me! [laughs] It is a bomb and it is going to explode! It could not be more different from Sauli’s concerto. It is in one movement and it is very extroverted, like Totentanz

This is the hard part of the profession; If you are playing concerts four days a week, you really want to have the music well in advance. As it happened, Daníel gave me the music a week before Christmas, as a Christmas present. And it stole my Christmas! I’ve had no free time. In fact, I am at work with it as we speak. If Daniel wasn’t such a close friend, I would have asked the premiere performances to be postponed. 

It’s going to be fine, certainly, but I’ll be exhausted. I just wish I’d had had more time. For me, the process is not only about learning a piece of music, but to really understand it as well as the composer.”

Víkingur Ólafsson portrait by © Ari Magg

Following the Bjarnason premieres, there will be further forays into the realm of contemporary concerto ahead throughout they year, as Víkingur plays John Adams’s Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018), again on both sides of the Atlantic, with the composer, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Salonen on the podium, respectively. 

”It is such a wonderful piece! And it is also the piece I got to know John with. My last two concerts before Covid were with this piece and John back in March 2019. So it is very dear to me.”

Premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in March 2020, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? was written for Yuja Wang, who gave a series of initial performances for the concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel around the US as well as Europe. Subsequently the concerto has been picked up by Víkingur and Jeremy Denk, both joined by the composer on the podium.  

Adams’s chosen title comes from a quotation often attributed to Martin Luther, the seminal figure of Reformation, as well as a composer and music-lover, for whom music was a chosen tool for connecting people and conveying the essence of theology in the most communicative manner conceivable. 

While Adams’s music  may be far removed from the realm of the Lutheran hymn, both composers share an unprejudiced tendency for fusing together all kinds of musical idioms, highbrow and vernacular, in order to create new expressive entities, rooted in interchange and communication. 

”Like so many great pieces, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is hard to categorize; it is an unbelievable thing, which encompasses everything from minimalistic to bebop. It swings and it is hugely virtuosic. It is another bomb!”

In Víkingur’s schedule, there are three performances ahead under the composer’s baton with both the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich on 17-18 March and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on 5 May. The Swedish premiere is soon to follow, as the pianist joins Rouvali and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra 18-20 May. From there, the concerto returns to its home ground in California, for a series of performances with Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony on 23-25 June.   

”I’m also going to play the piece with the Berlin Philharmonic on 21 and 22 December. Initially, they asked if I could do the Grieg concerto, but I did not want to play that. Instead, I suggested Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? and they took it. So it will be a part of their Christmas concerts, which is just great!”

Being actively involved in the contemporary music world allows the performer to share the stage composers themselves. Alongside John Adams and Daníel Bjarnason, Víkingur was joined by Thomas Adès at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik last November, for a performance of the composer’s symphonic piano concertoIn Seven Days (2008), one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire according to the pianist. 

”The level of musicianship with people like Tom Adès or John, it is like making music with Ravel or Bartók. And I’m so stupid that I’m not afraid of them! To be honest, I’m not interested in just serving them. I’m interested in examining their music. And with these guys, I feel liberated to do that. In the end, any piece of music really transcends the performer. There is no such thing as the composer’s sound. There is no one Beethoven sound, there is no one Bach sound. ”

When it comes to the canonic pieces in the repertoire, fresh perspectives can be found with insightful programming. One of such ideas, discussed by Víkingur and Adams, would have had Igor Stravinsky’s Movements (1958-59) for piano and orchestra and Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in C minor (1786) played together without a pause. Although the project was eventually lost to Covid, it came up in our discussion with Adams last year. 

”Oh, I’m glad he remembered that! In Movements,we have another concerto that is not a concerto. It’s more like chamber music. And given its brevity, it is one of those pieces that call for coupling. Combining Movements with Mozart 24 would have been organic, because the D minor concerto starts with an ambiguous introduction, with musical material turning into an almost twelve-tone row. 

Anyway, that idea came and went with Covid, but luckily we got to do the Mozart together at Ojai last summer.”  

Víkingur Ólafsson photographed for his Mozart & Contemporaries album cover by © Ari Magg

In the parallel universe of studio work, recording albums is an endeavor that abides with its own laws of nature. Although proclaimed dead repeatedly throughout the streaming era by some, the tried and tested concept of the album is alive and well, as demonstrated over and over again by the pianist during his five years at the roster of artists recording for Deutsche Grammophon.  

”It takes about four months to develop the album concept. So, if you have any free time between rehearsals and performances, that goes into that, because I want to do it differently. It takes some time to get the concept right. You have to create it like a composition; it becomes its own work of art. 

I don’t want to record just another catalogue album; complete this or complete that. With those albums, I feel like walking into a library. And I don’t think that’s how the composers intended to have their works heard, because you lose the DNA of individual pieces. 

For example, Chopin never programmed his Etudes in their entirety. Instead, he only played four of them in one programme, at the most. It would make no sense to play all of them in a row, because it would reduce them into mere exercises.   

Similarly, if I want to record, let’s say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Invention No. 8, I don’t want to start by recording the first seven. It is important to take the piece out of the context of the past seven, in order to get into its own essence.”

Víkingur’s own DG albums have been true to the pianist’s artistic credo. His 2017 label debut featured a selection of Études (19991-2012) by Philip Glass, divided into two groups of five pieces on the playlist, framed by the composer’s other music, as originals and reworks. 

In similar vein, on the ensuing Bach album, Víkingur played a diverse selection of the composer’s oeuvre, combined with a sequence of reworks on the album’s bonus release. His third disc, in turn, brought together the keyboard music of Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claude Debussy, giving rise to a series of discoveries and rediscoveries about the connections between the two French masters separated in time. 

Released last year, Víkingur’s latest albumMozart & Contemporaries, presented us with a musical journey through the life and times of not only Wolfgang Amadeus, but his fellow composers throughout the Central Europe alike, including Baldassare GaluppiDomenico CimarosaCarl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Joseph Haydn

”You have to love the repertoire you record! For example, I only reworked two of the sonatas by Cimarosa for the Mozart album, because those were the ones that really spoke to me. 

If someone genuinely feels that all thirty two Beethoven sonatas speak to them in equal measure, then it makes sense to play and record them all. But that’s not for me. For example, I’m not going to play the Sonata opus 22, because it sounds very academic in my ears.

Students should be encouraged to criticize the canon! In the absence of such criticism, composers become statues. And I wanted to get away from that with my Mozart album, in order to present him as a living, breathing composer. 

Instead of making more catalogue entries, every performer should decide for themselves, why to play something; what makes the music speak to them.”

© Jari Kallio 

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