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Ólafsson and Bach, Co-Creators

Víkingur Ólafsson
Ari Magg
Víkingur Ólafsson

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson brings a spirit of collaborative creation to the Bach's Aria and Variations in the Italian Manner, and Christoph Spering leads the Cantata No. 14 on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Chorale Prelude on Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 - Víkingur Ólafsson, piano

Cantata BWV 14 Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (translation) - Lydia Teuscher, soprano; Daniel Johannsen, tenor; Daniel Ochoa, bass; Chorus Musicis Cologne and Das Neue Orchester, Christoph Spering, conductor

Aria variata (alla maniera Italiana), BWV 989 - Víkingur Ólafsson, piano

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat, BWV 1051 - Apollo's Fire, Jeanette Sorrell, director



“When you open a score of Bach’s music, a paradox immediately reveals itself: the music is incredibly rich and strikingly sparse. The musical structures are very detailed, but there are hardly any indications as to how you should go about shaping them. … it is simply unavoidable for the performer not to become something of a co-creator.”


Those are the words of Vikingur Olafsson, the pianist you’re hearing in Bach’s Aria and Variations in the Italian Manner. It’s part of Olafsson’s 2018 release of a collection of Bach’s music that’s simply astonishing in its combination of imaginative programming, dazzling technique, and interpretive depth. And it’s coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. Vikingur Olafsson was born in 1984 in Reykjavik, Iceland. And in choosing his Bach recording as one of the best releases of 2018, NPR’s Tom Huizenga wrote that Olafsson “perceives the great German composer as a kind of musical nucleus, continuously radiating inspiration. Evidence of this worship results in warm, translucent performances that are personal, poetic and precise.” You’ll hear a couple of those performances in the next hour.

Also on the program today is Bach’s Cantata No. 14 Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, or, “Were God not with us at this time.” And if you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

The centerpiece of Vikingur Olafsson’s Bach recording is a rarely heard set of variations that may have been something like a prototype for the more well-known Goldberg Variations. And it’s surrounded by several shorter pieces, some of them transcriptions by later composers. Like this one. This is a chorale prelude on Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, transcribed by Ferruccio Busoni. Vikingur Olafsson is the pianist, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 528-II.]

There’s a mesmerizing quiet that Bach expresses in his prelude on the chorale Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, or “I call to you, Jesus Christ,” originally for organ. And in Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription, it takes on an even more intimate quality. This performance of Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ was given by Vikingur Olafsson, and you’ll hear more from him later in the program.

Bach’s Cantata No. 14 is a reflection of one of the central themes of the Lutheran theology of the time, that for a believer, divine presence makes all the difference between a life of despair and a life of hope. It begins with one of those incredible elaborations on a simple four-part chorale that only Bach could have come up with. Each phrase of the chorale is sung by one voice, answered by another voice singing it upside down, a pattern that’s repeated by the other two voices. And behind all of that, the horns and oboes play the same chorale in a stretched out, or augmented, version. What results is a density that musically suggests the words: “Were God not with us at this time, we would surely have despaired, scorned by so much of mankind that all set themselves against us.”


A soprano aria reinforces that outlook, but now, as she sings, “Our strength is too weak to withstand our enemy,” a trumpet comes along to play the role of protector.


And in each of their solos, the tenor and bass draw out the argument through symbols of water, as overwhelming, vengeful waves, would lead to the believer’s destruction. The final chorale brings another symbol as the chorus sings, “As a bird escapes the snare, so our soul is delivered: the trap is broken, and we are free.”

Remember, you can find Pamela Dellal’s translation for this piece for Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you start at our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is the Cantata No. 14, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, or, “Were God not with us at this time,” with soprano soloist Lydia Teuscher, tenor Daniel Johannsen, and bass Daniel Ochoa. Christoph Spering leads Chorus Musicis of Cologne and Das Neue Orchester, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 14]

Bach’s Cantata No. 14, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, or, “Were God not with us at this time,” in a performance by Chorus Musicis of Cologne and Das Neue Orchester, led by conductor Christoph Spering. The soloists included soprano Lydia Teuscher, tenor Daniel Johannsen, and bass Daniel Ochoa.

When pianist Vikingur Olafsson set out to release a recording of Bach’s music, he put a very personal stamp on it by mixing and matching several works that, together, express a very personal point of view. So rather than record a sort of catalog collection, like all of the Well-Tempered Clavier or all of the French Suites, Olafsson, assembled several shorter pieces in a unique sequence. In one instance, he plays a two-part invention back-to-back with a related sinfonia - otherwise known as a three-part invention, giving each piece a new perspective. There are several transcriptions, including one by Olafsson himself, which, again, reflect back onto those pieces purely by Bach. It’s an amazing example of the way a set of individual pieces can affect each other through the course of a program.

In the midst of it all is an aria and variations Bach wrote when he was in his mid-twenties. This is Vikingur Olafsson with the Aria variata alla maniera italiana, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 989]

Bach’s Aria and Variations in the Italian Manner has the feel of a sort of prototype when you set it next to the composer’s much more well-known Goldberg Variations. But whether Bach thought about these variations thirty or so years later when he wrote the Goldbergs, this earlier set has a unique combination of charm and intimacy about it. This performance of the Aria variata alla maniera italiana is part of Vikingur Olafsson’s 2018 release devoted to Bach’s music.

Those variations seem to be among the less performed of Bach’s works, which is one reason it’s nice to see them included in Olafsson’s recording. On the other end of the spectrum is a set of pieces performed and recorded every season, and for good reason. Here is one of them. Cleveland’s baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, plays the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1051]

That’s Apollo’s Fire, the baroque ensemble based in Cleveland, Ohio, led by their founder Jeanette Sorrell, in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.