Víkingur Ólafsson: the brilliance of the Icelandic pianist’s Bach interpretations

Víkingur Ólafsson won the BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year in 2019 with his recording of Bach piano transcriptions. We reflect on these fresh, exciting interpretations and explain what it was that made our jury fall in love with Ólafsson's album

Pianist Vikingur Olafsson

Like a perfect, crisp autumn leaf, Víkingur Ólafsson’s disc of JS Bach dropped onto our desks in September 2018. From its opening seconds, it was clear that this was something exceptional: the programme both familiar yet unexpected, Ólafsson’s performance style delicately balancing fashions old and new, the recorded sound intimate and warm. Everything just so. In the BBC Music Magazine Awards jury meeting, it was the only disc we barely talked about. Because all eight of the jury were in agreement – Johann Sebastian Bach should go straight through to the next round, to be voted on by the public.

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Of the words we did use to describe the album, however, ‘fresh’ and ‘exciting’ were among them, so impressed were we that what, on the surface, seemed like just another disc of Bach keyboard music should be so utterly distinguished.

The Icelandic pianist, however, knew only too well the risks involved in releasing material already recorded by the likes of Glenn Gould, Murray Perahia, The best recordings of JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and many more eminent Bachians. ‘People are so specific about what they want in Bach, and often they’ve already formed very strong opinions,’ he admits. ‘I thought that I’d get a little bit more hate because , you know, my Bach is my Bach…’.

From the first track, listeners will be struck by the evenness of Ólafsson’s touch, the immediacy of his articulation and, particularly in the slower tracks, a rich, almost organ-like depth of tone. ‘I really spent many years forming my own ideas about Bach,’ he says, ‘trying to make sense out of his structures and finding the right balance between freedom and discipline, between rubato and strict rhythm. And I tried, too, to play him in a three-dimensional way, giving life to the polyphony, like a theatre director controlling three or four characters at the same time. You have to make sure that they’re all alive, even when they have different roles.’

But it’s Ólafsson’s programme of ‘Best of’ Bach, lesser-known works and fascinating transcriptions that captivates as much as his interpretations. If it comes across as an album concept rather than a recording of a recital programme, then that’s exactly what it is. ‘I don’t want my albums to be merely an extension of my performing activity,’ he insists. ‘I’m not one of those pianists who plays whatever they want to play in concerts for two years and then they record just because they’ve been playing it so much and want to document it.’ Albums should, he explains, consider the listener rather than glorify the artist.

Ólafsson eventually hit on the idea of focusing on Bach as a master of short narrative. ‘Recently I’d been thinking about Bach on colossal terms so much, playing the Goldbergs and the Partitas and those kinds of works,’ he says. ‘I wanted instead to return to my roots and to pieces I learnt for study purposes, like some of the preludes and fugues, sinfonias and inventions, and smaller items. I wanted to redefine them for myself and not think of them in an academic sense, but to find the poetic cell in each one and get to the essence of each piece.’ Part of that thinking meant banishing the idea of recording complete collections or cycles – the idea was to let each miniature piece stand on its own, helping it to reveal its uniqueness.

But why the transcriptions, in that case? Johann Sebastian Bach includes seven of them – arrangements of chorale preludes, a solo violin movement and a prelude and fugue from the ‘48’ – by Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Siloti, Wilhelm Kempff, Ferruccio Busoni and Ólafsson himself. And August Stradal, whose version for piano of the slow movement from Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 4 seems to have somehow emerged as the album’s defining track. Ólafsson talks about Bach being a ‘mirror for each generation’, his album reflecting performance approaches of a more modern era. But the transcriptions are also used as programmatic glue, as part of the album’s pacing. ‘If you look at the opening half of the programme, you’ll see that there’s a prelude and fugue, then a transcription, then a second prelude and fugue and another transcription and so on. At the album’s exact centre I play the Aria Variata and then launch into the longer pieces as the album progresses. It ends with the magisterial, expansive eight-minute A minor Fantasia and Fugue BWV 904.’

But back to the Aria Variata, a Goldbergesque work consisting of a theme and ten virtuosic variations, probably written in 1709, probably for harpsichord. It’s not exactly well known – it’s hardly been recorded, and performances in the concert hall are extremely rare. What was the rationale behind including it? ‘Even people who play a lot of Bach probably won’t know it. But I thought it would be fantastic to include a piece that he wrote 20 years before the Goldbergs. You’ll find so many seeds in this piece which you’ll find fully grown in the Goldbergs. And because it’s so underrepresented, I found myself able to explore it in my own way and decide on some pretty radical tempos.’

It may not be a familiar piece, but in Ólafsson’s hands, the Aria Variata becomes vintage Bach, the heart of a recording that proves the composer’s eternal appeal, his boundless versatility. ‘The music that Bach writes isn’t about him, it’s about humanity,’ suggests Ólafsson. ‘It’s not his sorrow or his joy. Beethoven takes us into his world. But Bach gives us space to explore our own world.’

You can buy Víkingur Ólafsson’s recording of Bach from the following outlets:

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Words by: Oliver Condy
Image credit: Getty Images