From Afar

From Afar

Vikingur Ólafsson has always adopted an imaginative approach to his albums. In 2018’s Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer’s neglected keyboard classic Aria variata was placed amid sublime transcriptions of cantata movements and organ works. In 2020, a French album, Debussy – Rameau, brought the music of the two composers together in sublime juxtaposition, while Mozart & Contemporaries applied fascinating context to some of Mozart’s most profound solo piano music. With From Afar, however, we get to know Ólafsson the person, each track providing valuable insight into what drives one of today’s most compelling musicians. A deeply personal project, the album combines an intimate reflection on his musical upbringing with an homage to the great Hungarian composer and pianist György Kurtág, following an emotional encounter with him in 2021. Ólafsson describes his meeting with Kurtág in hushed reverence. “We had the most amazing musical communion for two or three hours,” he tells Apple Music. “We didn’t exchange too many words, but they were all extremely generous and nice. And then I just started playing for him.” Among the Bach, Mozart, and Icelandic folk songs, Ólafsson played three songs from Csík, a collection of folk songs by one the 20th century’s greatest composers and Kurtág’s fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók. “When I’d finished, Kurtág said the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me: ‘You play Bartók like it’s your mother tongue.’ Coming from György Kurtág, I was like, ‘OK, I’m allowed to play Bartók now!’” The music of J.S. Bach, so long associated with Kurtág, forms another cornerstone of the album. For years, Kurtág would perform piano duet concerts alongside his pianist wife, Márta Kurtág. From Afar features the composer’s own arrangement for piano duet of the opening movement to Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 1 for organ, the lower part taken by Ólafsson’s wife, Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir, as an homage to Márta. “Márta told me that she was fond of my Bach playing,” says Ólafsson, “so to play this piece with my wife was very beautiful.” Even the most seemingly incongruous tracks have a place in Ólafsson’s story, connecting in imaginative and often delightful ways. Thomas Adès’ The Branch, for instance (a world premiere recording), shares its forest theme with “Twittering” from Kurtág’s Játékok and Schumann’s “Vogel als Prophet” (“Bird as Prophet”) from Waldszenen. “But there’s another element,” reveals Ólafsson, “in that Thomas absolutely loves Kurtág. He idolizes him.” And Brahms is a powerful presence, too: his music not only appeared on Ólafsson’s 2009 debut album on his own label, but his obsession with counterpoint makes him the perfect foil for Bach. The power that music has to create multiple connections is used to striking effect elsewhere. Ólafsson has loved the beautiful Ave María by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns since childhood. “It’s an extremely famous piece that we often go to in search of comfort,” he reveals. “It’s performed often at funerals and things like that. But it’s always heard in an overblown version, for choir, soprano, and organ. I prefer it in this super-intimate version.” Ólafsson’s performance, however, also sparks a reminder of more recent, darker days. “I played this piece live on the BBC’s Front Row radio program during the first lockdown in 2020,” he says. “Everything was going to hell, and the prime minister was in hospital. I was alone in the Harpa concert hall here in Reykjavík, speaking to the people in the UK and playing this piece as a prayer for all the victims of the pandemic.” Like all of the tracks on the album, Kaldalóns’ Ave María can be heard in two versions—one performed on a modern Steinway grand piano, and another on an upright, with its softer, chiming tones. “I actually thought the grand piano version of this piece was the best piano sound I had ever achieved,” says Ólafsson, “but people seem to really love the intimacy and the kind of extraordinarily close-up nature that the upright can bring to it. It lends the music a magical quality because it’s so delicate and so in between reality and surreality.” Ólafsson may be playing to us “from afar,” but the sound of his beautiful, simple upright brings him breathtakingly close. “It’s a little bit like someone whispering a secret in your ear,” he adds. “You can hear me breathing, and you can hear the piano in all of its imperfections. To allow people that kind of access to my playing is a really interesting experiment.”

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