Presto interview - Víkingur Ólafsson on Philip Glass

by James Longstaffe. 16th February 2017

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is quickly establishing himself as one of the most exciting young performers around at the moment, particularly noted for his performances of contemporary music.

He has just been signed to Deutsche Grammophon, and for his debut album he chose a programme of Etudes by Philip Glass. I spoke to him about his association with this music and his approach to recording in general.

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Firstly, many congratulations on having been signed to Deutsche Grammophon! What does it mean to you to be part of the outstanding roster of pianists on “The Yellow Label”, and which pianists have been most influential on you?

My parents are both musicians and I think about 60% of their LP and CD collection has the Yellow Label on it. I got to know so much music through DG records, things like the Beethoven Symphonies with Karajan, Beethoven Piano Sonatas and Brahms Piano Concertos with Emil Gilels, Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with the Hagen Quartet, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto with Mutter... It’s been a gateway for me into so many interesting and beautiful sound-worlds. As a boy, I dreamt about one day recording on DG myself.

Of the pianists which have influenced me there have been so many. I’d like to name specifically Horowitz, Michelangeli, Richter, Argerich and Gilels, who, though extremely different players, all shaped to some degree the way I think about piano music and pianism. When I first heard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces with Gilels, the Debussy Images with Michelangeli, or Bach/Busoni with Horowitz, it felt like hearing piano sound for the first time.

Can you tell us about your association with the music of Philip Glass, and when you first discovered it? Aside from the fact that it was his 80th birthday last month, what made you want to choose his music for your debut disc?

I remember very well the first sounds of Philip Glass's music I ever heard. I was 13 years old, heading from France to Switzerland on a family vacation. We were on the highway and I was sitting in the back seat with my two sisters and we were bored. So my father handed us a recording of Glass's Violin Concerto No. 1 with Gidon Kremer and the Vienna Philharmonic (incidentally a DG record!) and we took turns in listening to it on our Sony DiscMan player. I remember being absolutely stunned by what I heard. It was a whole new world to me and it was thrilling to take it all in while watching the French landscape passing by at 100 miles per hour.

When it comes to recording, it’s crucial to me that there is an element of surprise and a sense of discovery. The same holds true when one curates a music festival programme. I don’t really want people to know what to expect, and the Glass album seemed great in that respect: it seemed like a natural choice.

The music on the album fulfills all the criteria I have before recording: that I love the music, that I believe there is a lot that is still to be said when it comes to interpretation, and that it allows for exciting experimentation in the recording studio. I also know Philip Glass personally and I see this album as a birthday greeting for his 80th birthday – we released the album just 4 days before.

I think it’s refreshing to record music that hasn’t been overdone in the studio and while some of the Etudes on the album are already very well known, others are practically new music, written only 5 years ago. And I think/hope that my approach tends to be quite different from the already recorded versions.

I imagine the first thing that a lot of people will think of in relation to Glass's music is the extensive repetition of musical ideas within each piece. How do you approach that as a performer? Does it create particular difficulties in terms of stamina and structure, and how do you move beyond this surface perception in order to shape the pieces and to bring out deeper meaning?

I wanted to make this album as a statement that there is no such thing as repetition in music, even though it might look that way from the printed page. I believe that holds true for all music, and not least the so-called minimalism. I don’t think we can ever hear the same music twice, we “cannot step twice into the same river” as Heraclitus put it 2500 years ago. My image is that we are not treading the same path but rather travelling along in a spiral, always finding new perspectives to explore the same object. It’s more rebirth than repeat. And if you hear Glass perform himself, you certainly get that feeling: that the music is always being born in the present.

Alongside these solo piano pieces, you are also joined by the Siggi String Quartet in reworkings of three of the etudes by Christian Badzura (Director of New Repertoire at DG). How did these arrangements come about? What do you think the sound of the strings adds to these pieces, and consequently how do you feel the mood differs from the piano original?

I think Christian did great work with these. The music lends itself beautifully to being reworked and improvised upon. Sonically speaking, I think it’s a welcome addition to the 10 etudes to have the refined sounds of the Siggi String Quartet on there, and it was a lot of fun to search for the right sound between the piano and the quartet in the recording studio. As this is an hommage-type album, I also think it’s symbolic to represent the immense influence of Glass on the music of our times with these new reworks.

I’m particularly fond of the Opening – Rework, which is the last track of the physical CD, the original Opening being the first track. It works beautifully with one of my favourite Glass quotes from his autobiography, Words Without Music:

“Openings and closings, beginnings and endings. Everything in between passes as quickly as the blink of an eye. An eternity precedes the opening and another, if not the same, follows the closing. Somehow everything that lies in between seems for a moment more vivid. What is real to us becomes forgotten, and what we don't understand will be forgotten, too.”

Finally, now that your debut disc has been released, are you able to reveal any future recording plans? Is there any repertoire that you adore that you feel has been under-represented on disc and that you would love to tackle next?

We are currently at the drawing board at DG for the next albums. I can tell you that it will be extremely different from the Glass album. It’s such a fun process to brainstorm and I think we have at least 3 ideas for albums that really interest me. I’m lucky that I get to curate them myself in a fruitful and interesting dialogue with my excellent DG team, led by Christian Badzura. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out exactly which one is right for the next release.

Philip Glass: Piano Works

Víkingur Ólafsson's debut disc on Deutsche Grammophon was released on 27th January.

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