Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
rec. 2023, Norðurljós Hall, Harpa Concert House, Reykjavík, Iceland
Deutsche Grammophon 4864553 
To say I was delighted when I saw this release announced a few months ago is an understatement: a recording of one of my favourite pieces of music played by my favourite pianist, the Icelandic virtuoso, Víkingur Ólafsson. And to add to my excitement, it was also announced that he would be touring the Goldbergs across the world in 2024. While it doesn’t seem he will make it to New Zealand, Melbourne and Sydney are not that far away, and worth the trip to hear him.
Ólafsson’s booklet note indicates that he has dreamt of recording the Goldbergs for twenty-five years, which by my calculations means that he started thinking about it when he was fourteen. Not having had any formal musical training when young, I’m not sure I even knew who Bach was at that age.
The Aria is taken gently and steadily at just over four minutes, and doesn’t prepare you for the storm to come. Ólafsson explodes into the first variation in a cascade of notes, and it is quite thrilling. While Variation 2 is slower, it does have a strong drive forward, a rhythmic momentum which didn’t sit as well with me. I listened to my reference versions – Angela Hewitt (the first Hyperion), Beatrice Rana (Warner), Murray Perahia (Sony) – and preferred their more varied rhythms. And so it continued: Ólafsson takes the first six variations in eight minutes, which is more than a minute faster than any of my comparisons, and it does strike me as more than a little relentless. In Variation 7, we finally have some respite (and dare I say it, poetry), and it is sublime. The tempo in Variation 8 is quicker again than my comparisons, but not inordinately so, but the dynamics are interesting, and took my mind back to his Philip Glass album.
I don’t intend to go through every variation, so let me pick out a few more that stand out for good or bad reasons. The relatively simple Variation 9 is one of my favourites; Beatrice Rana’s limpid performance gives it real depth, but Ólafsson’s skates across the surface of a frozen lake. On the other hand, Ólafsson’s Variation 12, again driven in a very Glassian way, is an absolute delight. Variation 25, the so-called “Black Pearl”, is the very opposite of driven, Ólafsson almost static at a touch under ten minutes. If this isn’t the slowest version on record, I don’t want to know what is. The Quodlibet that precedes the return of the Aria is described as an invitation into a Bach family musical merriment, but I hear no joy in it.
Víkingur Ólafsson’s 2018 album of Bach selections (Deutsche Grammophon 4835022), including a number of arrangements, is one of my most played albums, another reason to have anticipated this new release so greatly. It is, therefore, a considerable disappointment that the depth of feeling and the poetry in the earlier album seems to be missing here. I’ve never liked either of the Glenn Gould versions, and at times, it seems that Ólafsson is trying outdo the Canadian in the speed at which he takes some of the variations, and also in the percussive nature of the playing. In his booklet note, he discusses the process of arriving at this recording, and how he initially mapped out each variation with a mathematical approach, but realised this didn’t work. He then looked at each variation as an individual drama, but the relentless approach to so many of the variations seems to contradict this.
So Beatrice Rana stays at the top of my Goldberg pinnacle: her more subtle mix of poetry and fire matches my sense of how the work should be played, more than Ólafsson’s intense and driven world. If Rana’s Goldbergs are bathed in Italian sunshine, Ólafsson’s are an Icelandic blizzard: I know which I prefer. I have no doubt I will return to his recording; his earlier recordings have given me enormous respect for his music-making, but it will require me to be in the right mood. Will the reservations I have expressed stop me trying to get tickets to one of his Australian performances next year? Probably not, though they have given me pause for thought. For those considering a purchase, I strongly recommend you listen to a few samples first.
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