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Cool on the surface, volcanic beneath.

We're talking about Iceland, the most secluded of the Nordic countries, where almost all buildings are warmed by the geothermal heat that comes up from underground.

But that description also fits the world's hottest classical pianist, Vikingur Ólafsson, an Icelandic artist who honed his craft in relative isolation before erupting onto the international scene late last decade.

His four albums full of solo piano works for Deutsche Grammophon — arguably classical music's most respected label — have proven a smash, streamed over 260 million times. His 2018 album "Johann Sebastian Bach" had critics fawning, winning Album of the Year from BBC Music magazine and inspiring Gramophone magazine to name him Artist of the Year.

Now the Schubert Club is bringing the 37-year-old pianist from Reykjavik to the Twin Cities. On Sunday, Ólafsson will perform music by Mozart and his classical-era contemporaries at St. Paul's Ordway Music Theater. Then on Tuesday, he'll alternate between works of Bach and contemporary composer Philip Glass at Aria in downtown Minneapolis. In between, he'll conduct a master class at MacPhail Center for Music.

It was to be a longer visit, but the classical music industry is still playing catchup with COVID, so everyone's calendar is crowded with rescheduled gigs. Ólafsson's Twin Cities stay is squeezed between a Friday night in Finland and a Thursday concert in Toronto before he's off to Germany.

The pianist's well-earned acclaim is notable for one who didn't go the typical route of a piano prodigy.

"I saw the piano primarily as a toy — simply the best toy in the world — as a boy," he told the music website Arcana. "I still do, actually. I think I've been very fortunate that all my very good teachers maintained this sense of freedom towards music within me, which meant that I never had to be asked to practice — I just felt like playing the piano a lot."

Nor did he join in the competitions that are customary for young pianists. "So I didn't have any exposure to what students my age were doing," he told Gramophone magazine last year. "I had no yardstick to measure myself against except through recordings. … I didn't go abroad to study until I was 16 — the first time I ever saw other music students my age."

That journey was to New York's prestigious Juilliard School, where he received both a bachelor's and a master's degree. After some time in Oxford, England (where his wife was a graduate student), he returned home and became a key cog in a blossoming Icelandic music scene.

At 25, he started his own record label, releasing his first three solo albums. He picked out the piano for Iceland's first major concert hall — Reykjavik's architecturally and acoustically lauded Harpa — and helped christen it as soloist on opening night. And he founded a now internationally acclaimed festival, Reykjavik Midsummer Music.

Soon, Deutsche Grammophon came calling, but his first release proved a surprising choice for a label known as a distinguished keeper of the canon: an album of piano works by Glass.

Ólafsson has intimated that he and the label's powers-that-be often differ on what his next recording project should be, but he always stands his ground. And the sales charts have proven him right.

They wanted another album of contemporary American fare, but Ólafsson insisted upon Bach or he'd walk. That album was a hit, too, so they wanted more Bach. He held out for a musical conversation between Bach's French contemporary, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and his 20th-century countryman, Claude Debussy.

Now his latest is "Mozart and Contemporaries," from which he'll draw for his Ordway recital Sunday.

"You could say [Mozart] was the first indie musician, in the sense that he broke away from aristocracy and started his own concert series," Ólafsson told the Belgian magazine Bruzz. "He hired an orchestra, he sold tickets, he hung posters. … He did everything. The last 10 years of his life were one big quest for independence and freedom from tradition. I want to try and reflect that aspect of Mozart."

For someone on a major label, Ólafsson seems something of an indie artist, too — one with a distinctive interpretive voice that Twin Cities audiences can experience twice in the coming week.


Vikingur Ólafsson

Sunday: Mozart and his Contemporaries, 3 p.m., Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul, $36-$75.

Tuesday: Works by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass, 7:30 p.m., Aria, 105 N. 1st St., Mpls., $33.

Tickets: 651-292-3268 or Schubert.org.


Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. wordhub@yahoo.com