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Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson finds his balance

Ólafsson is in the midst of a series of US concerts that includes his first Boston recital: a sold-out appearance in the Celebrity Series of Boston’s Debut Series on Tuesday

A portrait of Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson.Ari Magg

The pianist Víkingur Ólafsson found himself in an odd position in his 20s. He’d spent six years studying at Juilliard but was now back in his native Iceland. He was famous in his home country but practically unknown anywhere else. Careers are often made young in classical music, and the fact that Ólafsson’s hadn’t achieved liftoff outside Iceland “sort of gets on your soul,” he said in a recent interview.

But rather than rue his fate, he elected to create his own opportunities. He started a music festival in Reykjavik. He founded his own recording label and released three albums. Inspired by Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould’s forays into educational broadcasting, he created a weekly TV show about music with his then-girlfriend (now wife), where he had carte blanche to discuss anything he wanted.


Word got out, as it often does, and Ólafsson’s career quickly ramped up after he signed a recording contract with the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label in 2016. By then he was 32 — late by industry standards, perhaps, but he’d been able to garner the experience and self-assurance that would allow him to follow the sort of creative path he’d blazed when few outside his homeland knew who he was.

“I’m really lucky and happy that I wasn’t given the contract when I was 20,” Ólafsson, now 38, said by phone. “When you’re younger, it’s really hard to resist those voices and to be confident in your choices and stick with them. So in that sense, I’m really lucky to be a late bloomer, although, when I was in my 20s, I was also desperate to get opportunities that weren’t offered to me. There’s something to listening to young artists and letting them create their own way.”

An example: After he made his DG debut with a collection of Philip Glass piano music, he resisted being typecast as a specialist in American minimalism, and insisted on following it with a Bach album (a superb one, as it turned out). Rather than record an album of Mozart, he created “Mozart & Contemporaries.” It’s an album that situates some of the composer’s works of the 1780s among pieces by Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, as well as largely forgotten composers Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa.


The thoughtful curation of his recordings, along with his work with composers such as John Adams and Thomas Adès, have made him one of the most in-demand pianists in the world. When I spoke to Ólafsson, he was at Iceland’s Keflavik Airport — a place he sees a lot of these days — on his way to the United States to begin a series of concerts that includes his first Boston recital: a sold-out appearance in the Celebrity Series of Boston’s Debut Series on Tuesday, where he’ll play “Mozart & Contemporaries” in its entirety.

His concert comes on the heels of the release of “From Afar,” a unique project that he described as “a letter” to Hungarian composer György Kurtág for which Ólafsson could find no words, only music. Last year, he was shocked to get an invitation to meet Kurtág, a composer whom he reveres, while in Budapest for a concert. Kurtág’s works are interlaced among pieces the pianist describes as important for “the development of my musical DNA,” including Bach, Brahms, and Icelandic folk songs.


To top if off, Ólafsson recorded the whole album twice — once on a grand piano and once on an upright piano approximating the one he had in his room growing up. The results are enthralling, intellectually and sonically. Brahms’s E-minor Intermezzo, Op. 116 No. 5, sounds beautiful on the grand piano but attains an otherworldly sadness when played on the upright.

“I wanted to sort of combine [Kurtag’s] world with my world, and send this to him as an album,” he explained. “I also thought that this is, in a way, my strangest album to date, and the one that risks people having strong opinions one way or the other. But it’s my most personal album, and I’m very happy to have brought it into the world.”

Unsurprisingly, Ólafsson is full of plans for future projects, including a new concerto being written for him by “one of the greatest composers of our time,” whom he declined to name. He also has learned to begin restricting his projects in order to achieve more balance, something reinforced by the need to be home with his two young sons.

“I want to say yes to everything,” he said. “I want to play 20 concertos a year. I want to do three world premieres. I want to do all those things,” he said. “But then reality hits you, and there’s only one way of learning, and it’s the hard way.”

Still, Ólafsson added, “this life and this kind of touring is now my life and, honestly, it hasn’t really ever been like that before,” he said. “It’s an interesting existence, but you know, I can’t complain since it’s an amazing existence, also.”


David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.