bach goldberg dg 1

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
rec. 2023, Norðurljós Hall, Harpa Concert House, Reykjavík, Iceland
Deutsche Grammophon 4864553 [74]

I’ve heard several conflicting opinions about Víkingur Ólafsson’s recently released recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Critics and the public seem divided in their view of the Icelandic pianist’s approach, with reviews mixed, including the two already posted on this site. Two friends of mine travelled to Liverpool in November to hear a live performance, and I got the impression the concert didn’t live up fully to their expectations. So, I was most keen to listen to this recording and make an assessment for myself, as the Goldbergs feature high up in my list of favorite works.

The Goldberg Variations were a commission from the composer’s patron Count Hermann Carl von Keyserling, a Russian ambassador to Saxony, “to while away his sleepless nights”. So, the Variations were born and named after the court’s resident harpsichordist, one Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. There are thirty variations, bookended by an exquisite aria. It is Bach’s greatest keyboard work. It’s been gestating in the Icelandic pianist’s mind for a good twenty-five years, and in 2023 he finally had the opportunity to perform it eighty-eight times around the world on six continents, and record it with Deutsche Grammophon. Ólafsson’s novel approach, admittedly with controversial interpretative choices at times, blows the cobwebs away and opens the door to a fresh, vibrant and, for me, exciting reading.

We get off to a good start with a beautiful, refined, thoughtful and expressively contoured aria, performed with a tone of bell-like purity. Then the floodgates open and we have a brisk and dazzling first variation. It works very well for me. The same can be said for Variation 5, akin to the spectacular version by Glenn Gould. The light and delicate articulation of the following variation is carried forward into Variation 7. I noticed throughout that Ólafsson doesn’t indulge in much sizeable ornamentation in the repeat sections. Maybe some would have preferred more.

There’s much anguish and pain conveyed in Variations 15 and 22,  both expressed sensitively with poetic eloquence. Landowska’s ‘Black Pearl’ (Variation 25) has the same qualities, wistful and disconsolate. By contrast Variation 22 exudes ebullience, as does the following Variation 23. The swirling vortex of Variation 26 is brilliantly virtuosic and impressive by any standards, not to mention the thrilling cascades of Variation 29. When we reach Variation 30, the famous Quodlibet, there’s a real sense of homecoming, fulfilment and inevitability. Radiant warmth characterizes the final return of the aria – a masterstroke by the composer. Completion has been accomplished.

To sum up, I enjoyed this recording very much. The piano sound is clean and immediate and the Reykjavik venue provides a conducive and agreeable ambience. Víkingur Ólafsson brings freshness, new life, vitality and a wealth of new insights to this oft-recorded work. His own perceptive annotations add considerable value to the project. As regards the booklet, though, I could have done without all of those photographs of his hands and ridiculous contortions – all a bit self-indulgent.

Stephen Greenbank

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Previous reviews: David Barker (October 2023) ~ David McDade (November 2023)