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That Spirit Behind Mr. Olafsson

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/07/2024 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Keyboard Practice Part IV: “Aria with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits”, a.k.a.: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Víkingur Olafsson (Pianist)

V. Òlafsson (© Ari Magg/Deutsche Grammophon)

The ‘Goldberg Variations’ have caused me more misery than almost any other piece of music in history. How many hours have I spent backstage fretting, knowing that there will be several insufferable know‑it‑alls in the audience, with their 700 recordings and deeply considered opinions? How many hours have I spent practising those passages where the two hands climb over each other, then turn around (as if revisiting the site of an accident) and head for each other again? They have caused me misery – but I still can’t get enough.
Jeremy Denk, quoted in The Guardian

Bach almost persuades me to be a Christian.
Roger Fry

Víkingur Olafsson may be one of the finest young pianists in the world. Yet his greatness, as exemplified by his Goldberg Variations performance last night is simply because he can’t be easily classified. He lacks the eccentricity of Gould, the quiet monumentality of Schiff, the volcanic exultation of Trifonov or the physical phenomenon of Bronfman.

Mr. Olafsson plays Philip Glass with Classical gentility, he plays Mozart with the visceral splendor. And last night he performed (vying with the Diabelli) the Everest of piano music.

It was a gorgeous performance, yet Mr. Olafsson had no idiosyncratic hooks to make it singular. Rather, the lanky Icelander used both brain, digits and–whenever necessary–the sensitivity of a Chopin to make Bach’s points.

Yet perhaps the reason for Olafsson’s esteem is that he lets the music speak for itself. Outside of one or two stretches during the 80‑minute recital–and the 75,000‑odd notes of the Goldberg–he let us hear the music. Without the distraction of a stunning personality.

How did this turn out? Two ways of looking at it. First, Mr. Olafsson’s attention to each of the 30 variations of the original theme. Second, in my view most essential, the gestalt experience of the entire work.

Mr. Olafsson understood the lonesome sublimity of that original theme. He played it with crystalline power, yet in the repeat, retarded certain measures.

The next variations were played with his dazzling fingerwork, allowing Bach’s serious “keyboard practice” to take hold.

Bach, unlike Beethoven’s Diabelli, never allowed humor or pastiche. But Mr. Olafsson came close in the seventh variation with a fairly bumptious jig. Onto the tenth, where Bach the pedagogue wrote a carefully crafted–and carefully played–fugue and imitation. I was especially impressed with the 13th variation, a personal communion giving the heretical idea that Bach could eschew mere technical inspiration for a religious mini‑epiphany.

For the second half, Mr. Olafsson took turns in running up and down the keyboard with the calmer 21st and the equally lovely 25th variation.

Then came the famous quodlibet with the theme played against a German folk song. What was Bach’s inspiration? We will never know. Perhaps that nuance of humor from the Master before the masterwork of repeating the original theme.

What was the result in totality? This was not Víkingur Olafsson the giant, but Víkingur Olafsson, the middle‑man between notes and audience. By playing literally, precluding any excess 18th Century figurations, we heard the notes, the configurations of notes, the alternations of lightning and darkness, velocity and pauses, playfulness and sobriety.

The joy of a physical performance is that one could witness that actual (not showy) way of playing. A few times stretching and pausing, several time head down to the keyboard, a slight smile when (presumably) something came especially right.

Yet the essential matter was that somehow–somehow–he managed a wholeness, a unitary experience to the whole work. Did Bach compose it in a single few hours? He was certainly capable of that. Did he write a few variations, take time for a sausage and beer and play with his multitude of children? Ditto. It could have worked that way.

One could even surmise that Bach’s brain was a Baroque Artificial Intelligence. That he thought of one theme, and the rest came unconsiously.

The way Mr. Olafsson played it, that was unlikely. Each section had its own non-artificial intelligence and its own technical challenges.

Not that Mr. Olafsson allowed us to hear those challenges. With his ear-popping technique, his admitted longtime study and his obvious intelligence, he allowed us to hear a set of variations which seemed natural, even foreordained.

The word “natural” isn’t correct. Rather, Mr. Olafsson used his innate (and frequently spontaneous) nature to reveal the manifold feelings, the chiaroscuro textures and that singular intelligence of J.S. Bach, the omnipotent spirit behind the fingers.

Harry Rolnick



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