Recording of the Month
Johann Sebastian Bach Víkingur Ólafsson
‘Intermingling celebrated transcriptions with Bach’s original works, Ólafsson creates a ravishing musical sequence’
Prelude and Fughetta in G major; Organ Sonata
No. 4; The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I (Excerpts); Concerto in D minor; Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, and other selected keyboard works
Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
DG 483 5022 77.25 mins
★aving heard Víkingur Ólafsson present a selection from this programme in recital, and having admired the clarity, poise and warmth of his playing, I expected this recording to be good; but just how good was still a surprise. And it’s prefaced by an essay which brilliantly explains his rationale. Starting from the premise that there is no single, correct solution to how
JS Bach’s keyboard music should be played – the composer left hardly any indications – this young Icelander points out that every element is up for debate, including tempos, dynamics, proportions and articulation: ‘We performers must weigh our knowledge of period style against our individual and inescapably contemporary sensibility; our faithfulness to what we believe to have been the composer’s intention against our freedom to discover possibilities in the music that the composer could never have foreseen – some of them made available by the modern instrument. There is no single, correct solution.’ And this, he says, is a strangely liberating realisation: the performer must necessarily become a co-creator, but one who stands on the shoulders of the great co-creators who have gone before them.
★is own precursors have been, in turn, Edwin Fischer, Rosalyn Tureck, Dinu Lipatti,
Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich, to each of whom he acknowledges a debt; as a transcriber, he owes a debt to Busoni, August Stradal, Rachmaninov, Wilhelm Kempff and Alexander
Siloti (whose work his own transcription – of Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV 54 – most clearly echoes). Bach now, he says, generally sounds quite different from Bach 30 years ago, and still more different from Bach 50 years ago. ‘In that sense,’ he says, ‘his music is contemporary rather than classical.’ One might say that all this is blindingly obvious, but to have it so lucidly stated is very much appreciated.
Intermingling celebrated transcriptions with some of Bach’s preludes, fugues, inventions, sinfonias, partita movements and with the A minor Variations BWV 989 which form the structural heart of this performance – this disc really does feel like a performance – Ólafsson creates a ravishing musical sequence. Every track has its own allure, and many reflect a virtuosity which is never flaunted; he treats the preludes and fugues as though they had been conceived as tone-poems or études: his fleet, slightly détaché account of the C minor prelude from Book I of the 48 is a miracle of delicate control, and his account of the Fugue in A minor BWV 904 has austere grandeur. ★ighlights among the transcriptions include Kempff’s finger-twister on ‘Nun freut euch’ (here made to sound as easy as a walk in the park), the adagio from Stradal’s version of the Organ Sonata No. 4 (sounding astonishingly organlike), and Ólafsson’s account of Busoni’s ‘Nun komm, der ★eiden ★eiland’, which ventures through dark realms with a measured tread. PERFORMANCE ★★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★★
Hear excerpts and a discussion of this recording on the monthly BBC Music Magazine Podcast available free on itunes or classical-music.com
Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson plays Bach
Prism playing: Ólafsson’s Bach is multifaceted