Thor­oughly modern Bach

Víkingur Ólaf­s­son tells Oliver Condy about his bril­liantly com­piled and ex­e­cuted al­bum

BBC Music Magazine - - Bbc Music Magazine Awards -

Like a per­fect, crisp au­tumn leaf, Víkingur Ólaf­s­son’s disc of JS Bach dropped onto our desks in Septem­ber. 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.

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, An­drás Schiff 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.’

‘I spent many years form­ing my own ideas about Bach’

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.’

Turn the page for de­tails of all our winners

A rare gem: Ólaf­s­son’s record­ing in­cludes the sel­dom­played Aria vari­ata

Rooted in earth: ‘Bach’s mu­sic is about hu­man­ity’

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