Vikingur Olafsson

A 21st century virtuoso

We sit down with the acclaimed Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson to talk Bach and more ahead of his appearance at Zorlu PSM’s Neue! Step festival.

Written by
Mehmet Ak

First of all, kudos on your Bach album. We’ll go ahead and call it the most exciting Bach performance of the 21st century so far. Leaving aside the critical acclaim for a moment, are you satisfied with the result?

Oh it’s a big question. I’m never satisfied. As with everything I’ve ever done in music, I always think it can be done better. I always feel like I’m growing, even from one month to the next. Considering I recorded the album a year and a half ago, I’m not the same person as I was then, and if I were to do it over again today, it would probably end up sounding different, perhaps even better. It’s always possible to do it better.

 How do you practice Bach?

His music seems too structural and mathematical to allow room for any interpretation. I actually practice Bach a lot. I think he is the most challenging composer to play. Playing Bach is like looking at yourself naked in the mirror. It is maybe the hardest thing you can do technically on the piano, because you cannot hide behind anything. As there is no indication from Bach on how to play his pieces, it’s completely open. I think he is history’s greatest composer. The most important thing when you play Bach is to find poetry in each and every piece and find what it is that makes that piece unique.

Your Bach performances are often compared to those of old masters like Glenn Gould and Wilhelm Kempff. How do you feel about these comparisons?

In the 21st century, everyone is always trying to compare you to somebody. It is the century of imitation. Many people say that I play like Glenn Gould, but I don’t. It’s very flattering, but I can only hope to be the best possible version of myself. It’s not for me to answer what makes my interpretation unique, but when I play music, I try to go as deep into it as I possibly can. When you do that, the music becomes a part of you and you become a part of the music.

Talking of the old masters, who do you consider to be your piano heroes? And who do you admire the most among your contemporaries?

I admire many people. From the past, I would say Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli from Italy, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, of course. I would also mention the early recordings of Vladimir Horowitz, and the work of Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti. Glenn Gould has also been an inspiration. As for living pianists, I have learnt a lot from two ladies: Mitsuko Uchida and Martha Argerich. 

On the one hand you are fond of figures like Bach and Beethoven, and on the other you have a tendency to interpret modern minimalists like Philip Glass and John Adams. How do these distinct repertoires balance each other out?

If you asked me this question 10 or 15 years ago, I would have a different answer, but now I only play the music I think is great and that I find convincing. I think that maybe 15 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas are absolute masterpieces, so I only play those that I like. It’s the same with the music of Philip Glass or John Adams, or anyone else from the modern repertoire. In classical music, I think performers are sometimes a little shy to take a stance on what they like and dislike. They would never dare say that not all of Mozart or Beethoven is great.

How do you balance touring life with home life?

I have two homes, one in Iceland and one in Berlin, and I like this balance for now. Iceland offers me quiet and solitude, while Berlin is one of the great cities of the world – perhaps even the greatest when it comes to music. I become a father recently, and I love spending time with my little son in Iceland where we have a big family. I love family life.

What can we expect from your next album?

I will record it next week in Iceland, in Harpa Concert Hall, where I’ll be bringing my Deutsche Grammophon team. I have worked on it for a long time and I cannot wait to share it. The album is a dialogue between two French composers who have lived in different times. I want to show how they are really like musical brothers even though they are separated by 150 years. 

You’ll be coming to play in Istanbul soon. Will this be your first time in the city?

I first came to Istanbul in 2015 on vacation as a tourist and then began coming here professionally. Istanbul is an unbelievable city and I feel a strong connection to it. In a sense, I think it is the biggest city in the world. I’m not talking about demographics, but the diversity of life here. It’s one of the most fascinating melting pots of culture I’ve ever been to.

September 27, Zorlu PSM Turkcell Platinum Stage, 21.00, 90-154 TL

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