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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson's letter 'From Afar' to listeners

Pianist Vikingur Olafsson stands amidst a rocky Icelandic landscape.
Ari Magg
Víkingur Ólafsson's new album, "From Afar," releases on October 7.

Despite the changing nature of the way we listen to music, pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is a purist and “a romantic” when it comes to producing albums. Carefully sequenced and programmed, he describes them as “a letter to all my listeners, all over the world.”

The latest release, “From Afar,” began as a more direct letter, to the 96-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Ólafsson met him last year for what was supposed to be a short visit, but turned into “this fantastic two hours,” says Ólafsson.

“It was two hours of me playing for him, and having just the most incredible time, and he was just listening.”

Ólafsson says the two wound up having such a terrific conversation that he decided to dedicate this new album to him, and wound up sprinkling his music throughout the new release. “Those pieces are relatively simple,” he says, “but they have that feeling of joy, of discovery.”

“From Afar” is 22 tracks of beautiful miniatures and shorter works for piano, including music by Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, and an “Ave Maria” by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns that is so simple and heartfelt, I was immediately bowled over after hearing the piece for the first time. Astonishingly, Kaldalóns is not a composer by occupation.

“It’s by this guy, a doctor by profession, an amateur musician, but an unbelievable melodist,” Ólafsson explains. “I think it can stand to the great ‘Ave Marias’ of the literature.”

There are two opportunities for listeners to experience “Ave Maria” and the other selections on “From Afar.” In an unusual move, Víkingur Ólafsson recorded all of the material on the album twice. First, on a grand piano, and then on a felt covered upright, which took him back to childhood memories of practicing in his bedroom. The intimate sound on record is astounding.

“You can really hear me breathing in places, and you can hear the hammers really hit the strings, and you can hear the mechanics of the pianos… it’s almost like you are sitting on the piano bench as you listen to it,” he says. “And that I love, because to me, a recording… should really tell you something that’s almost confidential.”

Like his previous releases on Deutsche Grammophon, Ólafsson also found himself involved with the whole process of the album, including its design and photography.

“We went into an incredible nature [landscape] in Iceland… it looks like I’m on Mars or something, you know? Another planet. And that is what [this album] is. It’s a message form afar, to my audience.”

From Afar” is available on CD and LP beginning October 7, 2022. To listen to and read a transcript of Vikingur Ólafsson’s full-length interview with TPR, see below.

Interview with Víkingur Ólafsson

Nathan Cone: I've been listening to the album. I love both versions of it. And I wanted to ask you right off the bat, you write in the liner notes to this new album, “From Afar,” about how the piano is both a serious instrument as well as something that can be a toy, something that you play with. It's fun. Do you find that's important for musicians, to continue to remember that it's not just something that we practice and have to fight with from time to time, but that it is a joy from childhood that we carry throughout our journey with music?

Víkingur Ólafsson: I think that's a great first question, Nathan, and I have a rather charming answer. I have two boys who are one and three years old, respectively, and we have quite a lot of grand pianos in my house. [laughs] And actually, when I see them playing the piano, it reminds me of what the piano is: this incredible playground for ideas and experimentation. And they don't play the piano, you know, the way you should play the piano, because no one has told them how to play the piano the way we have come to be expected to play the piano. But they play it beautifully and they play it with so much sensitivity and such a feeling of joy, of discovery. And yeah, I guess that has certainly influenced me in writing those program notes, but I felt that way as well with some of those pieces by György Kurtág, [of] which there are quite a few of on the album, and he's, of course, the album's dedicatee. I mean, those pieces are relatively simple, but they have that feeling of joy, of discovery, you know, of sort of going into just the warmth of ideas, really.

"A recording... should almost tell you a secret."
Vikingur Ólafsson

I love the programing of the album itself, and the way things are stacked throughout the album, with Kurtág throughout the CD, broken up by some Brahms here or a little bit of Mozart here. And I was wondering how you went about going to program the album, especially in a time when we know that sometimes people don't listen to albums in that particular way. Yet there is a definite flow to the release itself.

Yeah, in that sense, I'm a romantic. I'm fighting against the playlists, in a sense! But of course, I realize that people of course, choose freely, whatever, speaks to them. And with the individual pieces, they put them into their own playlist and that's great! But I mean, this album… and all my albums, actually… I think of them as one composition from the first track to the last. So in a way, it's like the most ambitious playlist that I could possibly do, a playlist that takes me many, many, many months of forming and back and forth, of learning all sorts of pieces that I then decide not to record. And then in the end, I come up with what is the final, final playlist, the final album. And yeah, that's one of the best things in my musical life, that process, because then I'm just free and everything is open and you can just go in any direction that your mind and your conviction takes you. In this particular case, everything revolves around those incredibly beautiful soundscapes of György Kurtág, who is perhaps my favorite living composer, who is still very much alive at the age of 96 in Budapest, writing fantastic music for the world to hear.

I had a meeting with Mr. Kurtág last year. He invited me to meet him in Budapest, and we had this fantastic two hours. It was supposed to be 10 minutes, but it was two hours of me playing for him and just having the most incredible time. And he was just listening, and we were having beautiful discussions about music and life. And then I decided that I wanted to, you know, do an album that's almost like a thank-you letter to him. And that's what this album is. It's almost like a letter to Kurtág. But of course, it's also a letter to all my listeners all over the world.

Vikingur Olafsson walks along an Icelandic beach.
Ari Magg
Pianist Vikingur Olafsson.

Absolutely, so you feel like you've got a narrative going through the album in that regard. Speaking of individual tracks, though, the first single from the album, “Ave Maria,” by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns... when I first heard that piece, I had an immediate emotional reaction to it. I fell in love with this piece of music upon first hearing. And it's interesting that I was reading in your notes about how it's used in various ceremonies and the like, weddings and things like that. That piece was just... and a lot of the music on this release... I had an immediate reaction to.

Fantastic! The “Ave Maria” by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns is a kind of a piece that is one of those pieces--and there are a lot of those pieces in the world--that is so universal in the way it speaks to people, but no one knows them. And there's so much more to the world of music than the canon as we know it of Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann. So in a way, I love bringing those kinds of discoveries, my discoveries and then hopefully discoveries for the rest of the world. Things that speak so powerfully to me, and that might be absolutely off the normal radar of recorded repertoire. Now, those are my favorite things to record. I did that also in the “Mozart & Contemporaries” album, my last release and certainly in “Debussy-Rameau.” Some of the music on both of those albums was the first ever recordings of those pieces that were then still something like two or 300 years old, you know. And this “Ave Maria,” it's by this guy, a doctor by profession, an amateur musician, but an unbelievable melodist who could write these beautiful melodies. And this one, I mean, I'm slightly biased because he's Icelandic and so am I! But I think it can stand to the great “Ave Marias” of the literature. But of course I leave it to the audience to decide in the end.

I'm interested also in the process behind the album itself, which of course is really fascinating. If you're recording on both a grand piano and an upright piano, and specifically with the upright release, it makes soft music even softer because of the damper pedal, the felt covered piano. And you write in the liner notes about how it's not as forgiving as a grand piano because you don't have the overtones that are in a large hall when you're recording with a grand piano. What changes in technique did you have to make when performing the programs in two different ways?

Yeah. Good question. Very good question. I mean, first I recorded the whole album on the grand piano. That's my normal piano, and I love it. And it's probably the most beautiful piano sound I've managed to get on microphones. And then, you know, in the spirit of Kurtág, who loves upright pianos, and actually my own spirit, I also love upright pianos... I decided to just play the whole album and recorded it all on upright piano. But that is a completely different story because we actually put the microphones so close to the piano because it's so soft that you can really hear me breathing in places and you can hear the hammers really hit the strings and you can hear the mechanics of the piano and everything is heard. So it's almost like you are sitting on the piano bench as you listen to it. And that I love, because to me, a recording, whether on a grand piano or on upright piano, should ideally tell you something that's almost confidential. They should almost tell you a secret. It's really the most personal, you know, art form in a certain sense. It can also be very personal to play for 2,000 people in a hall. But this is a different thing. And the way people listen to recordings 95% of the time is on headphones. Where you really have the music just so close to your ears. And so this is a great experiment… and it's a bit of risk, to release the same repertoire on two different mediums like that, because it invites the obvious conclusion that people are going to prefer one to the other [laughs] and think lesser of the other! But I love them. Both of my babies, you know, my musical children, these recordings.

What kind of touch did you have to have on the keys when you were doing it on each one?

Well, actually, I would say that because of the felt piano being so incredibly soft by nature, you actually have to play slightly louder on that, and you have to work extremely hard for the soft dynamics on the big Steinway. And if people would see me in the studio and would hear me the way I play in the studio, I play it differently in the studio than I play in big halls. they would probably be surprised by the extreme of dynamics and extreme of texture and registers that I usually go for, and that brings to me the results that I am going for when I listen back on the headphones. I very often find that piano recordings in general are much too much “in your face” sound. And there... the microphones are usually a little bit further away or considerably, sometimes further away than I have my microphones, which makes it easier because then you just play and everything sounds kind of fine, but nothing sounds perhaps very specific. And I like the idea of this kind of almost Glenn Gould-ian, you know, super close-up sound. But of course, Glenn Gould rejected reverb of any kind… of room sound… in his, at least, later recordings. But I kind of want the best of both worlds. I also like the beauty of sound and the beauty of space. So I tried to combine this incredible immediacy of the close-up microphones with just the right amount of room microphones in the mix, and that's really always such a tightrope to walk.

What did the record company say when you said, I want to do it both ways?

Well, you know, at this point they've come to trust me, I think! It's Deutsche Grammophon, so it's perhaps the most respected classical record company in the world. And this is the first time anything has been done like this. But, you know, they allow me to break the rules. And I think that's what's going to keep any business in the arts alive... To break the rules from time to time. That includes symphony orchestras, promoters, record labels, anyone, certainly performers. Because that's what all the great musicians did before, and in the past. And all the great composers, they didn't play by the rulebook, really. There is no rulebook in the end! It's like with the last record I did with Mozart, I actually had a black feather on that cover for various reasons. And the feather, the tip of the feather, actually went in front of the yellow cartouche of the Deutsche Grammophon, the very famous banner, the yellow banner. And that was the first and only time in the history of Deutsche Grammophon that that was allowed to happen, and I had to fight for it! But I love I love breaking up a little bit the rules of the game.

I'm so glad that you're involved in the artistic, visual esthetics of the album as well in that regard. That's kind of cool.

Yeah. It's everything. I mean, the writing, the notes... I couldn't have anyone else write the notes because the albums are so personal, the way I program them, they matter so much to me and also the visuals on all my albums. You know, the first album I did, which was for Philip Glass, five years ago, we actually had a prism glass and the photoshoot was all shot through a prism glass that was quite beautiful, you know? And I love that. We had a kaleidoscope for [the] “Bach” [album]. We had watercolors on my fingers for the “Debussy-Rameau,” and the black feather for “Mozart & Contemporaries.” I love that kind of symbolism. On this photoshoot, we actually just went into an incredible nature in Iceland. The album is called "From Afar," and it looks like I'm on Mars or something, you know? On another planet. And that is what it is. It's a message from afar to my audience.

This fall and spring, you've got some great things coming up on tour. You're going to be playing the Grieg Concerto, the Ravel Concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes,” which I love, the John Adams piece that came out a couple of years ago.

Yeah, amazing piece!

Yeah, fantastic. So are you gonna play some of these pieces [on “From Afar”] as encores at your concerts?

Yeah, this is going to be encores. Like you said, I'm playing with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra as well, and I'm coming to the U.S. quite a bit. And certainly in these concerts I'll play a different encore every night. But I'll definitely be playing the album, but really as an afterthought after these big concertos, yeah. And I'm still playing the “Mozart & Contemporaries” recital program throughout the U.S. and then in different places from last year. But I love to bring this [album] to the live platform as well. All of this music and these pieces, they're almost like encores. They're all like 1 to 2 minutes long. It's really a mosaic kind of a release.

It was great to meet you virtually. And thank you so much for your time today. I love the album.

Thank you. That really makes me so happy, and all the best to San Antonio.