Víkingur Ólafsson’s Bach, through Lenses Past and Future

After completing his studies, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson became a “student” of Bach and immersed himself in his music. “He was just the teacher I needed: the kind that teaches you to be your own teacher.” His stunning new recording of original and transcribed works by Bach is WCRB’s CD of the Week.

Víkingur Ólafsson begins his notes for his new Bach CD by remembering some wise words given to him when he was a young student: Bach is a free country. The meaning? For those who want to bring Bach’s music to life, “every element is up for debate.” Bach tells you almost nothing about how to play his music. Tempos, articulations, dynamics – all are left to the imagination of the performer. It’s essential to have absorbed what’s known about the styles and trends of Bach’s time. But after that comes a whole lot of soul-searching for what feels and sounds right.

Ólafsson tries to meet composers midway. While the printed page is sacred in some ways, he insists that it’s not set in stone. Bach, like many other composers, was a great improviser, and Ólafsson doesn’t believe that Bach ever played the same piece the same way twice – and he’s sure he’ll change his own mind over time, too.

It’s worth thinking of this when listening to his new Bach recording. He’s arranged it with great care, interspersing pianists’ transcriptions of pieces (including his own) with Bach originals. He plays Busoni’s vision of the Chorale Prelude “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (track 8) with rich sonorities that keep the organ in mind. Strands of melody float in as if arriving from great distances. It’s interesting to consider that it was the light-and-shade, magical pedaling of pianist Emil Gilels that inspired Ólafsson to find more of what is possible in the sound of the piano.

After Busoni, the crisp approach to Bach’s C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (in its original form – tracks 9 and 10) makes for a wonderful contrast – almost as if he’d moved on to a different instrument.

It’s possible that the Prelude in D from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Track 6) will slow down as Ólafsson gets older – or that he’ll pull back on his hyper-virtuosic ride through Wilhelm Kempff’s transcription of the chorale prelude “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein” (track 2). 

He already expects that he’ll find other approaches in the future, and what a delicious contrast they make to the lush warmth he comes up with in Rachmaninov’s transcription of the Gavotte from the Third Violin Partita (track 26) and Siloti’s haunting vision of the B minor Prelude, BWV 855a (track 27).

There’s a beautiful three-dimensional quality to Ólafsson’s playing, maybe heard best in his own transcription of the aria from “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” (track 11).  Voices dance in the foreground, middle ground and background to a pulse that is graciously unperturbable. Ólafsson’s love and reverence for Bach is palpable here. It’s wonderful to hear him play the uncommonly programmed Aria variata, BWV 989 (tracks 12-23). It’s fascinating to hear him fall into an elegantly hypnotic state in the slow movement of the D minor Harpsichord Concerto after Marcello (track 31).  

It all sheds light on Ólafsson’s control of the shifting light and shadow that can transform the quality and effect of Bach on the piano.

Watch a music video from the album:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.