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Víkingur Ólafsson: Tiny Desk Concert

Top-tier concert pianists commonly perform on nine-foot grand pianos. However, when they visit the Tiny Desk, it's our job to convince them to scale down to our diminutive upright. We got no argument from Víkingur Ólafsson, the 40-year-old star pianist from Iceland.

His eyes lit up when he saw our instrument. He immediately removed its upper panel, then secured the practice pedal, which drops a curtain of felt between the hammers and the strings, producing a muted, intimate sound, allowing the music to be practically whispered to us.

The pieces Ólafsson chooses are gentle, and for him nostalgic, recalling the countless hours spent at his own upright piano in his childhood bedroom.

J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations is "an encyclopedia of how you can think and dream on the keyboard," Ólafsson says, after opening with the work's featherlight Aria and vigorous first variation. His phrasing is warm and lilting, and as detailed as a Vermeer.

Ólafsson is also a gifted arranger. His rendition of an interlude from Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1763 opera Les Boréades unspools as a calm procession. Ólafsson titled it "The Arts and the Hours" because, he says, "art is long and life is short."

Filtered through Béla Bartók, Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík have been part of Ólafsson's repertoire since childhood. The wistful melodies and tangy harmonies are irresistible. And Ólafsson closes with another personal arrangement, "Ave María," something close to Iceland's national prayer.

The pianist insisted on placing our grumpy-looking Bach bobblehead on the piano for companionship, joking that the frowning little toy "seems permanently displeased with everything I do." But judging from this performance, and his wise words, Ólafsson is doing everything just right.


  • J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations - Aria, Variation No. 1
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau (arr. Ólafsson): "The Arts and the Hours"
  • Béla Bartók: Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík
  • Sigvaldi Kaldalóns (arr. Ólafsson): "Ave Maria" 


  • Víkingur Ólafsson: piano


  • Producer: Tom Huizenga
  • Director/Editor: Joshua Bryant
  • Audio Technical Director: Hannah Gluvna
  • Series Producer: Bobby Carter
  • Videographers: Joshua Bryant, Maia Stern
  • Audio Engineer: Kwesi Lee
  • Production Assistant: Ashley Pointer
  • Photographer: Estefania Mitre
  • Tiny Desk Team: Kara Frame, Hazel Cills
  • Executive Producer: Suraya Mohamed
  • Series Creators: Bob Boilen, Stephen Thompson
  • VP, Visuals and Music: Keith Jenkins

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.