For this pianist, every album is an essay

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For this pianist, every album is an essay
Vikingur Olafsson performs at Lincoln Center in New York, Aug. 10, 2017. The pianist’s latest recording, out March 27, 2020, is a sprawling juxtaposition of Debussy and Rameau. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Pianist Vikingur Olafsson’s recording career could be described as a constant refusal to be pinned down.

His debut on the Deutsche Grammophon label, in 2017, featured Philip Glass’ études, and he was encouraged to follow it with more minimalism. But Olafsson insisted on something else entirely: a winding album of Bach. Again, he was asked to record more of the same.

And again, Olafsson, now 36, didn’t. His third Deutsche Grammophon album — “Debussy Rameau,” out March 27 — is similar to his Bach in its sprawling ambition. But it’s new in its juxtapositional structure.

The album’s 28 tracks, which include a tender transcription by Olafsson from Rameau’s opera “Les Boréades,” are a dual portrait and an experimental colloquy, exploring what these two composers share across centuries: pathbreaking individualism, and, at times, a synesthetic approach to music.

The program begins with Debussy’s 1906 transcription of the prelude to his cantata “La Damoiselle Élue,” which is based on a poem and painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It depicts an impossible conversation — a woman gazing at her lover from heaven — which is how Olafsson envisioned the album. So the prelude, with its inconclusive ending, leads directly into Rameau’s “Le Rappel des Oiseaux,” and the cross-temporal exchange goes from there.

In an interview at Walt Disney Concert Hall here in February, Olafsson said he spends about six months assembling the pieces that will go into his albums before he even begins to learn them in earnest.

And between each album release — a period of 18 months or so — he tours programs unrelated to his recording projects. He was in California appearing with his Icelandic countryman Daniel Bjarnason, whose new piano concerto will premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Olafsson next season. Olafsson has also been playing John Adams’ concerto “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” in Europe, with stops planned for the United States.

His schedule is increasingly filled with high-profile performances and debuts. (His first collaboration with the New York Philharmonic is another to come next season.) “All of the sudden, everything is happening at the same time,” he said. “I got this advice, that it takes 15 years to become famous overnight.”

This new album is his first dive into Rameau. He long loved Emil Gilels’ recording of “Le Rappel des Oiseaux,” but it wasn’t until Olafsson was awaiting the birth of his first child last spring that he read through more.

“I’m scratching my head over why Rameau’s music is not played very much,” he said. “With the quality and the inventiveness, and the unpredictability of it all — there’s never a formulaic element to these pieces.”

Those characteristics reminded him of Debussy, a hunch he turned into an album. Here are edited excerpts from a conversation about the recording.

Q: Why these specific juxtapositions?

A: It took me three or four months of reordering the album. There are so many versions, and I have like 100 secret Spotify playlists where I’m working with the order. What I’m trying to do is that “impossible conversation” between Debussy and Rameau.

Q: You ended up with quite a lot of tracks.

A: I want the album to be listened to as a playlist, as an entity — as opposed to people taking a few favorite tracks that they like. Which they will do, and that’s fine. But I’m sort of secretly trying to push against that, to push for the album as a playlist, as its own work of art.

I always think endlessly about two things: of course, the ordering of the pieces and all the little connections, but also the tonality of those pieces. So the album is like a composition in 28 tracks.

Q: Why do your albums and your touring programs diverge so much?

A: I see the album as an independent work of art. It is its own world; it should be like a microcosm. There has been a tendency for a very long time to see the idea of recording as an extension of a performing career: to document what you’ve been up to onstage, and in a way glorify yourself. If you do that, you miss so many wonderful opportunities to get to know music in a different way.

You listen differently through headphones, so the music works in ways it wouldn’t in a hall, and vice versa. The album deserves its own kind of love and focus. There are artists who do this; Cecilia Bartoli is probably the best example. And those are the albums that I’m drawn to.

When I play at Carnegie Hall next season, the first half will be about 60 minutes from the “Debussy Rameau” album. Then the second half is Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” but in the arrangement of Vladimir Horowitz, and also my own. It of course fits so well into this album of pictures in music.

Q: How did you reconcile Rameau’s style with the modern piano?

A: Playing Rameau on the piano requires you to find your own sound. He wrote a treatise about harpsichord playing, but if you were to play him by his own rules on the modern piano, in my opinion it might not work. The timbre, the dynamics, the range and scope of textures — they make it overcrowded. There are a lot of trills on my album, but I had to spend a lot of time figuring out how to make it my own on the piano, for the modern piano to serve the music.

Q: You end the album with Debussy’s “Hommage à Rameau.” What do you think is the homage there?

A: It’s so difficult to pinpoint where the Rameau element is. There is more Rameau in other pieces of Debussy’s than in this one. My recording of it is very nostalgic, reflective, looking back in time for sure. It’s like when a child really wants to pay homage to its parent, it does so by being itself and finding its own way. You learn from someone, but you don’t imitate them; they become a part of you, but on a much deeper level than you can prove or explain. So Debussy bows his head as a composer to a composer, rather than as a student to a teacher.

Maybe there is no answer to the question. It’s not tangible. It’s like everything Debussy did: elusive.

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