Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I came to the piano quite early – when still in my mother’s womb! She’s a piano teacher and when 5 months pregnant with me, she played her diploma recital from Berlin university, so I was quite close to the keys from the beginning. I started playing the piano before being able to speak (I was admittedly rather slow when it came to forming words), and there are pictures of me playing the piano as soon as I was tall enough to reach for the keys, high above my head.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
That would be my parents. My mother, the piano teacher, and my father who is a composer and architect. Mum introduced a lot of the classical and romantic repertoire to me, while dad brought 20th century music to my attention, relatively early on.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Finding my way after my study years in New York, moving to Europe with practically no professional connections and nothing going for me. I wanted to build my career without doing piano competitions and realized that I needed to become my own teacher and find my own way once I had finished school. So I had a lot of time for self-study and focused especially on the works of J.S. Bach, started my own record company and later also started a music festival in Reykjavík, and gradually began to get more and more invitations to play concerts. But it wasn’t always easy. Getting a manager seemed very difficult early on, I sent some CD’s and letters to different people and never got answers. I felt the business was simply impossible, that no one was listening, regardless of how you played or what you did. But bit by bit things started to happen and it helped me quite a lot when Alfred Brendel reassured me in 2012 by telling me that “it takes 15 years to become famous overnight”. I think that holds true for the great majority of International performers, but not many people talk about it.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
It’s easy to look at everything one has done and only see the things that one would have liked to do differently in the present. I think we have to embrace the different phases of our artistic development and often I find that peformances from the past are considerably better than I had imagined and worried.
I’m rather happy about my Bach-Chopin album from 2011 with Partitas No 2 and 5 and the 24 preludes, I can listen to that disc and enjoy it. For concert performances, I’ll mention my first Rach 3 performance, from 2007 with Iceland Symphony and Rumon Gamba (on Youtube). I was actually very unhappy with myself after the concert but today I don’t really understand why.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Not for me to say, but I do feel very comfortable in the works of J.S. Bach and Ludvig van Beethoven.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I try to have a healthy balance of adding new concertos and recital works to my repertoire and to revisit works I’ve played before. I also try to commission and premiere a new Piano Concerto every 2-3 years. Right now, I’m actually more into revisiting works, but I’m still adding 3-4 piano concertos every season and probably 1-2 recital programmes.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? My favourite venue is Harpa in Reykjavík. I was honoured to perform the very first concert in the big hall in 2011, the Grieg Piano Concerto with Iceland Symphony and Vladimir Ashkenazy, and I still get this extra buzz of excitement when going on stage there. Besides, the acoustics are marvellous, the pianos great and backstage you have the view of the ocean and Mount Esja, my favourite mountain.
Who are your favourite musicians?
The ones who keep an open ear and never take anything for granted.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The opening concert of Harpa Concert House in 2011.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think the most important is to find a way to become your own teacher. For that you have to try to develop the skill to listen to yourself while you play as if you were sitting 15 meters away in the hall. Quite paradoxical. Nothing is better in this regard than recording yourself, whether at home or for an album release. But it can be painful and one always wants to practise just a little bit more before pressing the rec button and having to look in that musical mirror…
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Alive and playing great music!
What is your most treasured possession?
My Steinway B model Grand Piano from 2009 and my gorgeous Longman and Broderip Square Piano from 1785.
What is your present state of mind?
I’m on an airplane as I write these answers, heading to Iceland. It’s 25th February and somehow I’ve already played 12 concerts this month. I’m a bit tired and am so looking forward to having 10 days of break!
Possessing a rare combination of passionate musicality, explosive virtuosity and intellectual curiosity, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has won all the major prizes in his native country, including four Musician of the Year prizes at the Icelandic Music Awards as well as The Icelandic Optimism Prize.
Víkingur grew up in Iceland where he studied with Erla Stefánsdóttir and Peter Máté. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from The Juilliard School, where he studied with Jerome Lowenthal and Robert McDonald.
[Interview date: 25th February 2017}
(picture: Harrison Parrott)