Víkingur Ólafsson: Hungarians are everywhere in my career

I’m catching pianist Víkingur Ólafsson for an interview during his tour in Los Angeles to discuss his newest album, Mozart and Contemporaries, and the related concert in the Müpa on 22 September. Despite the time zone difference (he’s sitting in front of Zoom at 8 am while I sip my afternoon tea) we are in tune within a few minutes. The result is an interview about both Mozart’s life and times, and a dip of Hungarian national pride for me… 

How did your career start?

It kind of started before I was born. My mother is a piano teacher, my father is an architect but also a composer. They didn’t have so much money while they were pursuing their studies in Berlin. Then my paternal grandfather died and left some money to my parents. They invested it all, even with a bit of extra loan, to buy a huge piano. That was the only ‘valuable’ thing they owned for a while. They then lived in a tiny basement flat in Reykyavík where I was born, I shared one room with two sisters, but I guess it was a very important decision, even before I was born, that my parents decided for the piano and not a bigger house, for instance.

So I grew up in Iceland, and there I had a piano teacher who had studied at the Liszt Academy. He made me play Hungarian music, mostly Liszt and Bartók, from an early age. Also, as a teenager, I met a very important man, György Sebők, a music teacher based in  Indianapolis, US. He was really a great musician and an amazing educator. He opened my eyes to many things in music. By the time I was 12-13, I really started to practice a lot. I wasn’t a child prodigy but was still talented. That was in Iceland, though, there were very few courses for pianists. It was a different childhood to that of most pianists. more relaxed, peaceful.

What happened afterwards?

After I started practicing very seriously, soon I played with the Iceland Symphonic Orchestra already, and so on. I played Ligeti, for instance – those were kind of new pieces at that time. Then I moved to New York to study at the Juilliard and lived there for six years. I had a teacher there called Jerome Lowenthal who also played an important role in my development; I dedicated my new Mozart album to him because he’s turning 90.

There was another important encounter in my life, with György Sándor, who was a student of Bartók. He premiered some of the Bartók pieces in the 40s – so you can imagine how old he must have been when I met him! I also played for him – Bartók, of course. I can’t stop emphasising what a strong affinity I have with Hungarian music. Maybe it has something to do with the similarity between Icelandic and Hungarian folk music and how the language manifests in them, with the emphasis on the first syllables, the similar trends.

This sounds like a very strong connection to Hungarian music!

Indeed, this is a very unique relationship between me and your country. For instance, Bartók was alway very important to me. My mother started my musical education with Microcosmos, among other things. My father is a great admirer of György Kurtág, and yeah, he is indeed one of the leading musical minds of this century. I also love to play with cellist István Várdai. We are like brothers when playing our duos together. Last year, we had a joint Müpa concert, albeit without an in-person audience. And actually, there was only one time during my studies in Juilliard when I attended a piano competition, still in 2008, and I also played Bartók there.

What came after finishing your studies?

After Juilliard, I was on my own for a few years. I didn’t give many concerts, and they were rather small, but I took each of them seriously. Also, I tried to experiment, to teach myself. I started to focus on JS Bach, Mozart and Chopin. Gradually, from 2011, 2012, I started to give bigger and bigger concerts. At one of the relatively still smaller ones, the Deutsche Grammophon team heard me playing the Goldberg Variations, and invited me to join their roster. That was the time when more and more people started to know and care about my music.

The programme of your upcoming concert in the Müpa is very long: there are many 17th, 18th century composers and even a bit of Liszt in relation to Mozart. Three of them include your name, too. What is the story behind these ones?

I have arranged those pieces. The two Cimarosa works are a little bit limited for a modern piano. I took the liberty to harmonise them, because they were written without harmonies, so I added some. I changed one-two little things, and made the pieces to be my own. It’s still a piano piece, but a different arrangement. However, the Mozart piece is a real transcription, rearranged from a string quartet to be a piano piece. I always imagined how it could sound on piano and when I tried, I was fascinated by how lovely it sounds. Of course, it’s not better than the original, but also not worse – just different.

Why do you work with that historical period?

It grew out of my fascination with the last ten years in Mozart’s life, between 25 and 35 years of age. ‘Mozart the child prodigy’ gets much more attention, but in the last 10 years, he had an incredible period, his music expanded, he became greater and greater, more complex, nuanced, interesting. In my opinion, this is Mozart. Also, it was an interesting period in his life from many aspects. He was no longer young, and had to fight for recognition. He fought to get away from his controlling father who didn’t even want his son to marry the woman of his choice, Constanze Weber. Also, Mozart had to fight against powerful people who didn’t appreciate him. He was rejected by his home crowd in Salzburg and Vienna. But during those difficult times, his music became greater. He discovered JS Bach in 1781, around the time my album picks up the thread. Mozart’s late music has the greatest expressivity, originality, and it is indeed music ahead of its time. Too bad he died so early. With a longer life, he could have enjoyed many benefits of the new social structure.

Interesting that you mention the issue of seeing Mozart as merely the child prodigy. You are also often referred to as an extremely talented young pianist with an absolute pitch and synesthesia. People speak about you similarly to how they speak about Mozart.

It might be the world’s fascination with youth and something out of the ordinary. It’s very kind of you to say such a thing, but if you compare anyone to Mozart, you see: we are so small! Of course, the life of musicians is interesting to people. I love music, but growing up in Iceland was not like Moscow, Beijing, New York or London. There was no competition, I just played because I loved to play. I was never aware of what anyone else was doing. It was actually a good thing, because it left my relationship with music less stressful and more joyful, full of discovery and invention. Sometimes you have to be disciplined and push yourself, but in the end, there has to be a fundamental root of happiness in everything you do, otherwise it won’t work out.

You spoke a lot about Mozart, but why are the other composers there?

Because Mozart was part of his own time. We focus on him and his genius a lot, but he was part of his own society. A very curious person, he took a lot of influence from others of his age. We think we know him, but I wanted the album to have surprising new facettes, both by Mozart and by others. I have played a lot of these pieces already, and I designed this program the way I want to show it to the world. The pieces melt into each other, you almost cannot say when a piece ends and when the next begins. It almost sounds like one single piece, a collage composition with many different items, and I’m very excited about playing it in Budapest. It will be nice to collect one more experience featuring Hungary very soon…