The Icelandic pianist, performing Liszt’s Piano Concerto no.2 this week with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra, is Artistic Director both of Vinterfest in northern Sweden and of the Reykjavik Midsummer Festival. He runs a record label (Dirrindí) and has run a ten-part series with Icelandic National Broadcasting Service called Útúrdúr (Out of Tune), looking to encourage new classical music audiences through performance, interviews and demonstrations at the keyboard. He generously took some time to talk to Arcana recently about his career and aspirations.
Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?
I could say my very first encounters were when I was still in my mother’s womb, while she was completing her soloist degree from Berlin’s University for the Arts. She did a huge solo recital when six months pregnant with me! So I was close to the keyboard from the early stages. But more concretely, there are pictures of me reaching for the keyboard high above my head, before I started to speak.
What are your memories of studying piano – are there any pianists / teachers who have left a lasting influence on your career to date?
I saw the piano primarily as a toy – simply the best toy in the world – as a boy. I still do actually. I think I’ve been very fortunate that all my very good teachers maintained this sense of freedom towards music within me, which meant that I never had to be asked to practice – I just felt like playing the piano a lot.
I started listening to some of the great pianists in my early teens, mostly recordings from the 1930s and 1940s. On the one hand, classicists such as Clara Haskil and Dinu Lipatti fascinated me – I don’t know how many dozens of times I listened to Lipatti’s last recital album. On the other hand, I loved the big romantic players – the piano poets – like Benno Moiseiwitsch, Sergei Rachmaninov, Josef Hoffmann, Ignaz Friedman and Alfred Cortot, pianists from the so-called ‘golden age of the piano’. I remember listening incessantly to Friedman’s Chopin mazurka recordings, and trying to imitate them – with very little success I should add. So my early influences came from very different directions.
In my late teens and early 20s, as a student at Juilliard, I had two great piano teachers who, I now realize, could be seen as coming from these very different directions – Robert McDonald the classicist with his unbelievable sensitivity for the proportions of musical form and architecture, and Jerome Lowenthal, the freest musical spirit, master of the spontaneous.
You have performed recently with Vladimir Ashkenazy before in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. What did you take from that experience?
It is a privilege to work with Maestro Ashkenazy. It is a special feeling to have one of history’s great pianists on the podium. I can feel that he knows every single note I play on such a deep level. He’s completely with me every second. I’ve been asked whether it is intimidating to have a great pianist like Ashkenazy conducting, but quite on the contrary it really gives me a sense of freedom.
How would you introduce Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto to a newcomer?
When I heard the Second Piano Concerto in my teens, I actually didn’t like it at first. I remember saying it was too superficial. In retrospect, I now realize how superficial I was. It is a brilliant piece of music, written by one of the most captivating personalities in music history. I feel safe to say that Liszt was the greatest pianist of all time. The way he wrote for the instrument, and the way his performances have been described by his contemporaries, the way he invented much of modern day piano technique…he’s a man I have unlimited admiration for.
Liszt lived an enormously glamorous life as a young man and was probably the most famous musician of his day, but gradually turned more towards spiritual practice and even joined a monastery for a time. And I feel the piece contains these two contrasting sides. It is a musical narrative, which seems to take place somewhere midway between the grand and glamorous salons of Paris of the 1840s and a reclusive monastery up in the French mountains. I feel it is a one man’s quest, an Ein heldenleben of sorts.
How was Vinterfest last week – and how do you see the festival evolving in the future?
It was beyond my expectations. I chose the theme ‘New Worlds’ and we explored it in various ways. One concert was called Animal Worlds, featuring music of insects, whales and birds, another looked at the First and Second Viennese schools through juxtaposing the violin and piano fantasies of Schubert and Schoenberg, then there was my John Cage prepared piano workshop, the Eight Seasons of Vivaldi and Piazzolla and lots more.
I was extremely happy to have a Boulez In Memoriam concert with Michael Barenboim playing Anthèmes 2 for violin and electronics with IRCAM sound engineers. That was such a gourmet concert to listen to – I’ve never heard more beautiful electronics. It took place in a rather awesome car company and the audience was totally into Boulez’s music – nobody complained of it being to ‘too modern’ or ‘difficult’. Which of course it isn’t.
What can we expect from Reykjavík’s Midsummer Music this year?
The theme will be ‘Wanderer’ – and we will be exploring it in Harpa Concert house with artists such as Viktoria Mullova, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Ursula Oppens, Jerome Lowenthal, Tai Murray and more. The dates are 16-19 June, and I’m already looking forward to it.
As an Artistic Director of festivals, what do you look for when you are programming such an event?
To make sure that no festival is too similar to any other festival from earlier years. I don’t want people to be able to predict my festivals. In this respect, I love to work with a closely defined theme. Even if it means 10x more work for me to make the puzzle work with all the factors that need to be taken in to consideration, it allows for each year to have its own distinct palette of colours.
You have worked closely with Philip Glass. What appeals to you about his music, and what is he like as a person?
Mr Glass is such a unique and warm person. He is extremely brilliant of course, and knows what he wants, but is also very open-minded about interpretation. He has this creative energy that is simply put astonishing. I’ll give you an example: After we had done a long day of traveling in the early morning, checking-in to a hotel, going straight to sound check, giving a performance of his complete Etudes, he took me out to a restaurant. This was in Gothenburg in early 2014, and I felt happy but a little exhausted around midnight when we were having the last toast of the evening before heading to the hotel to rest. Or so I thought.
When asking for the bill, Mr. Glass also asked for a large cup of strong black coffee (!) and I asked him how on earth he could drink that before going to bed. He gave the following response: “but Víkingur, I haven’t had any time to compose today! I always compose 5 hours a day, and will do that now in my hotel room”. He, 78 at the time, made me feel like an old man. I was 29 at the time.
Icelandic music seems to be in a very exciting place at the moment. What is it about the country that inspires so much creativity?
The creative output of my fellow countrymen is undeniably impressive and vast when considering the inhabitants on the island are only around 330,000, but there is no simple answer to this question. The island itself is a very special place with strikingly varied and beautiful natural scenery. Maybe this has an influence on the Icelandic people’s (often overblown) sense of themselves as being unique and thus wanting to express themselves creatively through a medium…
Maybe the long and dark winters and the isolation of the island have something to do with this… Maybe it’s got to do with how young we are as a cultural nation, we are not very burdened by the past. I don’t know really…
You are also performing with Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley in June – what will you be playing?
We will be playing Schubert’s Piano Trio no.2 and Ravel’s Piano Trio.
What does classical music mean to you?
You might as well ask: “What does nature mean to you”. It means the world to me.
What piece or piece(s) of new Icelandic music would you recommend to Arcana readers? Both obvious and less obvious would be great!
How about Daníel Bjarnason’s Piano Concerto No 2 ‘Processions’ which he wrote for me in 2009, with its first two movements written in the grand tradition of heroic concertos before the third movement concludes the work with something close to techno music…
As a nice compliment from a very different direction, check out Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s album Aerial, out on Deutsche Grammophon. You will find both on iTunes and Spotify.
Víkingur Ólafsson plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto no.2 with the Philharmonia, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on Tuesday 1 March. For tickets click here