Recording of the Week,
A slow-brewed Goldberg Variations from Víkingur Ólafsson
A quarter of a century is a long time. Back in late 1998, the Russian and American space agencies were launching the first modules of the International Space Station; two plucky little tech companies called Google and Tencent were being founded; your author was starting secondary school; and an Icelandic pianist named Víkingur Ólafsson was starting to think for the first time about recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The fruits of that desire have taken twenty-five years to ripen, but now at last we can enjoy Ólafsson’s take on this ever-popular yet inexhaustible source of musical inspiration.
The opening Aria springs no surprises; restrained, gentle, with even the trills generally carefully rhythmical, rather than unmeasured. The sudden virtuosity of his decidedly speedy first variation thus provides a bracing splash of cold water, rising above mezzo-piano for the first time and introducing a bit of steel into the sound. It’s a subtle but clear sign of things to come: Where some pianists have retained a diffident approach, as if apologising to Bach for their decision to abandon the harpsichord, Ólafsson is not interested in ascetically denying himself the modern instrument’s full palette.
He alludes in the notes to having had a change of heart in his approach to the Variations; not so much striving for the abstract Platonic heaven of a mathematically precise sonic cathedral governed by numbers and ratios (which he initially tried, and discarded on finding it unsatisfactory), more embracing the grounded flexibility of a work written “for music-lovers, to refresh their spirits”. Throughout the album there are moments where you can almost hear him thinking, on the spur of the moment, “hey, what if I played these next few bars quietly just to spice things up?” It feels pleasingly unplanned - by no means bound to thinking in terms of preordained blocks of forte and piano.
With thirty variations to think about, it would be easy to gloss over Ólafsson’s technical abilities, so let me take this opportunity to underline that they are, indeed, extensive. An enviably nimble staccato in fast running passages that would tempt a lesser pianist to spare their fingers by resorting to legato (especially in Variations 3, 6 and 11); magical cantabile lines crafted over accompaniments (Variation 4 in particular, though also Variations 14 and 25); and, just occasionally, an intimidating burst of raw speed (Variation 5 and, to my surprise, Variation 29).
This latter, often majestic and grandiose, is here an incredible blur of activity. Ólafsson refers to the “finger-breaking virtuosity” of this “cataclysmic” penultimate variation, and that’s certainly the direction in which his performance leans. It highlights some nuances around suspensions, which wouldn’t work at a slower speed, and combined with his use of dynamic contrasts (plus strategic rubato to give shape to the otherwise breathless cascade of notes), it’s truly thrilling. Such is the whirling pace that I found myself half-expecting him to segue straight into Mussorgsky’s Great Gate at the end of this variation!
Ólafsson ruminates on the significance for the Variations’ impact and legacy of the da capo of the Aria that rounds it off - would they hold such a fascination without this quasi-cyclical element? For me, his performance presents the final Aria as more of a coda - remembering where we started, rather than actually seeking to return there. By the end of the Variations, the journey has changed both performer and listeners, and the reflective closing Aria encapsulates this. His extensive rallentando at the end acts not as a winding-down of the Aria, but of the Variations as a whole.
While it’s arguably a moot point to speak of a single definitive recording of the Goldberg Variations - they’re a work onto which artists can project themselves so profoundly that the idea of a definitive performance makes as much sense as there being one 'definitive' self-portrait - Víkingur Ólafsson has been nourishing, revising and even overhauling his relationship with this music since the ‘90s. That humility, and ability to critically reassess one’s approach and course-correct, makes the end result serious, sincere and authentic. A musician of this calibre, taking this much time to get his approach right before putting finger to keyboard? It’s absolutely not to be missed.