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npr's conversation between the keys with Vikingur Olafsson

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When Víkingur Ólafsson was about 5 years old, he already knew what he wanted to be. "It sounds crazy, but I always saw myself as a concert pianist," he says. "Even if I wasn't a good pianist."

The Icelandic musician, who turned 36 last month, has become a very good pianist indeed. Whether playing baroque or contemporary music, Ólafsson's technique is formidable, but it's transparency combined with warmth that has defined his singular sound. He is sought after by the world's top orchestras and concert venues and has signed on with the swanky Deutsche Grammophon record label. After well-received albums of Philip Glass and J.S. Bach, his latest album, Debussy – Rameau, was released March 27.

The recording unfolds almost like a classical mixtape, with Ólafsson juxtaposing tracks by two French composers, born almost two centuries apart, who both broke new ground in music. The pianist says he tried to create a conversation between Jean-Philippe Rameau, the baroque master who literally wrote the book on French harmony, and Claude Debussy, who, straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, absorbed those theories and then, as Ólafsson says, "threw them out the window."

Over the phone from his home in Reykjavík, the young pianist spoke with NPR about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on his relationship to music, the idea of Debussy as a "bank robber" and why he has been dubbed "Iceland's Glenn Gould." This interview has been edited for length and clarity.        

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