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Vikingur Olafsson Q&A's with Texas Public Radio... 'From Afar'

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Interview with Nathan Cone

Pianist Vikingur Olafsson stands amidst a rocky Icelandic landscape.

Texas Public Radio's Nathan Cone writes….Víkingur Ólafsson's new album, "From Afar," releases on October 7. Despite the changing nature of the way we listen to music, pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is a purist and “a romantic” when it comes to producing albums. Carefully sequenced and programmed, he describes them as “a letter to all my listeners, all over the world.”

The latest release, “From Afar,” began as a more direct letter, to the 96-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Ólafsson met him last year for what was supposed to be a short visit, but turned into “this fantastic two hours,” says Ólafsson.

“It was two hours of me playing for him, and having just the most incredible time, and he was just listening.”

Ólafsson says the two wound up having such a terrific conversation that he decided to dedicate this new album to him, and wound up sprinkling his music throughout the new release. “Those pieces are relatively simple,” he says, “but they have that feeling of joy, of discovery.”

“From Afar” is 22 tracks of beautiful miniatures and shorter works for piano, including music by Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, and an “Ave Maria” by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns that is so simple and heartfelt, I was immediately bowled over after hearing the piece for the first time. Astonishingly, Kaldalóns is not a composer by occupation.

“It’s by this guy, a doctor by profession, an amateur musician, but an unbelievable melodist,” Ólafsson explains. “I think it can stand to the great ‘Ave Marias’ of the literature.”

There are two opportunities for listeners to experience “Ave Maria” and the other selections on “From Afar.” In an unusual move, Víkingur Ólafsson recorded all of the material on the album twice. First, on a grand piano, and then on a felt covered upright, which took him back to childhood memories of practicing in his bedroom. The intimate sound on record is astounding.

“You can really hear me breathing in places, and you can hear the hammers really hit the strings, and you can hear the mechanics of the pianos… it’s almost like you are sitting on the piano bench as you listen to it,” he says. “And that I love, because to me, a recording… should really tell you something that’s almost confidential.”

Like his previous releases on Deutsche Grammophon, Ólafsson also found himself involved with the whole process of the album, including its design and photography.

“We went into an incredible nature [landscape] in Iceland… it looks like I’m on Mars or something, you know? Another planet. And that is what [this album] is. It’s a message form afar, to my audience.”

“From Afar” is available on CD and LP beginning October 7, 2022. To listen to and read a transcript of Vikingur Ólafsson’s full-length interview with TPR, see below.

READ THE Q&A