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Víkingur Ólafsson - Bach: Goldberg Variations
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2023)
Half the fun and adventure of reviewing a new Goldberg Variations recording is in the preparatory listening to comparison performances before the main event. In this case, the main event is Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson’s reading of Bach’s soporific written for the insomniac Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling and performed by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, hence the name.
Before listening to Ólafsson’s interpretation, I listened to Murray Perahia’s 2000 recording on Sony. This performance’s reputation has grown in the past 20 years and is considered the best piano version available. Perahia’s late survey of Bach’s keyboard works is uniformly fine, but the Goldbergs are something special. He reads and frames the shifting mood of the variations wholistically, adjusting tempo and rhythm as necessary. Perahia’s reading is warm, sunny, and organically authentic.
What Perahia brings to the table is not necessarily what is expected or desired of Ólafsson. The pianist’s Glass and Bach selections recordings are well admired for Ólafsson’s commanding technique and punctilious attention to detail. Both elements are powerfully present in this new recording. On the Aria and the slower variations, Ólafsson is nearly flawless. His articulation is clean, providing the variations as a crystalline lattice of sound. There is a coolness to his playing that is very appealing and quite different from that of Perahia (and the two Gould offerings).
Jarring is the difference when going from slower to faster tempo pieces. After a delicate and thoughtful Aria, played leisurely (time=04:05), the first variation erupts as if shot from a gun. Ólafsson’s articulation is impressively accurate at this tempo, but it passes too quickly to be savored. Only in the 28th variation does the pianist marry the articulation to the tempo. Ólafsson is far from the only pianist to lose control of pacing. Had he been more judicious in his pacing (like that of Céline Frisch in her harpsichord recording), his performance would rival that of Perahia’s.
Even with this schizophrenic pacing, there is much to admire and return to in Ólafsson’s Goldbergs. His love for and study of the variations is apparent. This is a good start on the extended compositions of Bach. Dare I wish for a set of the Partitas?
Murray Perahia - Bach: Goldberg Variations (Sony Classical, 2000)
Glenn Gould - J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations - 1955 Recording (Columbia Records, 1956)
Glenn Gould - J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations - 1981 Recording (Sony Classical, 1982)
Céline Frisch, Café Zimmermann – Bach: Goldberg Variations (Alpha, 2015)