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Vikingur Ólafsson’s Goldberg Variations - Musical Edda - lately at Carnegie Hall, February 7, 2024


Part of the Icelandic pianist's Goldberg Saga
Vikingur Ólafsson in Seoul playing BWV 988

Vikingur Ólafsson's Goldberg Variations - Musical Edda - most recently at Carnegie Hall

Recording review S. Lachterman


Throughout 2023-2024, and recently at Carnegie Hall on February 7, 2024, Vikingur Ólaffson has been the nordic Johnny Appleseed seeding Bach's masterpiece throughout six continents. Vikingur Ólafsson’s "Goldberg Variations," is the new contender: Molto semplice, giocoso, ben marcato


Ólafsson’s new recording of Bach’s "Goldberg Variations" and his supporting concert tour are a significant inflection to the vast and storied catalog of great Goldberg performances. Hundreds of recordings-- and thousands of public performances -- have emerged since Glenn Gould's original 1953 dazzler. Sometime in the 1960s I remember live performances by Ralph Kirkpatrick and Rosalyn Tureck, followed years later by those of Simone Dinnerstein, and a wonderfully poetic reading by Peter Serkin. Ólafsson now has his turn and it is crafted as, at once, an unadorned simplicity, at times, a near supersonic superhuman virtuosic tour de force, and an impish and childlike merriment that would probably give Johann Sebastian a chuckle.


I’m a serious consumer of new Goldbergs, and I always assume that an attempt is one done with the utmost veneration, analytic insight, and artistic ground. For example, I was very impressed with the grand two-performance release of Lang Lang’s interpretation, while I now recognize how it is 180 degrees (in several dimensions!) from Ólafsson’s approach.


The Goldbergs are really a giant passacaglia of sorts: the unifying element is the bassline and harmonies implied by their connective contours; thus, it qualifies as a chaconne as well. The layout clearly groups the work in two sixteen-piece parts (theme/fifteen variations/fifteen variations/theme reprise). The theme has two sixteen-measure sections forming a microcosm of the whole. The thirty variations are organized in groups of three: a “character” piece ( such as dance, fughetta, overture, gavotte ,etc.); a two-manual invention becoming progressively more virtuosic; and a canon (in an ascending widening of imitation interval). The canons have a further complexity in balancing meter, inversion, and minor key modes. Bach spared little to demonstrate an architectural counterpoise to the seemingly impromptu impression of the work.


Ólafsson doesn’t overthink this work, a tendency found in several other pianists exemplified by Gould’s introspective and somber last reading as well as Lang Lang’s at times rococo reading. Instead Ólafsson simply lets his fingers respond at quicksilver pace to the most appropriate voice. He simultaneously plucks notes from the one or two remaining voices, and gives them the stage. Sometimes, the chosen notes and phrases are rarely (if ever) called out in other performances. This technique can be thrilling and delighting.


I remember Gould’s performance of the Art of Fugue’s first Contrapunctus. Near the end, Gould registers an unusually limber tenor voice and brings it, most humorously and delectably, to the fore. Years ago, when I practiced this work, I never forgot Gould’s seemingly guileless emphasis of this voice, and to this day I always expect it to be put in italics, bold, underscored, and in small caps.


Ólafsson does the same in the Goldbergs. Any possible tedium would be in the bass line which unifies this work. Vikingur pulls out a strand from this part, gives it some gusto, lets it be the “soloist,” and then moves on.


The summation of such miniature “solos” never ruins the variation at hand, but only helps to effervesce in an improvisational way. Gould used this technique a lot, such as in Bach's Violin-Piano sonatas with Jaime Laredo, but never, though, with his Goldbergs .


Ólafsson eschews serious attention to matters of HIP. There is little regard or obsession with ornamentation, phrasing, and rhythmic eccentricities. All repeats are taken (as in Lang’s).


The phrasing on singing lines is rather straightforward, and much melodic elaboration is abandoned in favor of clarity and unity. For example, one can write a dissertation on how the third note of the theme should be executed: a slight suspension before the mordent which shifts oh so beautifully to a wee rubato for the next beat. It’s a melodic nuance that is the first interpretive event one notices. Also, that mordent is variously performed as “regular” (note-descender-note) or doubled up. Also, this decorated passage may be played in the same way for the repeat, or not. Ólafsson simply plays the passage as a simple mordent without suspension, without rubato; the slur is inexpressively simply ignored. Historically, many pianists have favored a freer embellishment. For example, Lang subtly suspends the second note delaying the mordent by a slice of time, a rather lovely touch.


Ólafsson admits that attempts to unify the pulse of the variations to a prescribed metric basis was abandoned. It would be all too easy if Bach crafted each variation with a simplistic “beat” so that the performer could justify tempo variations. Bach was no Elliot Carter.


Subsidiary lines get attention with generous helpings of marcato articulation. Thus, Ólafsson has great fun bringing barely noticed phrases into relief by a stronger dynamic emphasis. The marcato way has become a signature Gould technique, but Ólafsson employs it to elicit surprises and delight.


No one plays the 6th variation as fleetingly as Ólafsson It is breathtaking -- perhaps a bit too much of a “jack-in-the-box.” I remember Peter Serkin playing this variation quite moderato, but with a loving warmth that was disarming, not spine-tingling.

The remarkable “black pearl” variation, which has so many shades of harmonic color, and is usually soaked in expression and nuance, is not given such dramatic elevation. This is surprising. Instead, Ólafsson loves the inverted minor-key canon (#15) and its rhythmic and coloristic shading.

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