Classical Album of the Week: Icelandic Pianist Vikingur Olafsson's J.S. Bach

Jan 14, 2019

January 14, 2019. Fresh, emotional, crystalline as glacial water — these are words to describe Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson’s stunning recording, released this season by Deutsche Grammophon, of music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Bach is a free country.” So writes Ólaffson, quoting a “wise man” at the beginning of his own extensive liner notes to the album. This intriguing idea encapsulates the interpretive dilemma and opportunity facing every performer of Bach’s music — that although “the musical structures are very detailed, there are hardly any indications as to how you should go about shaping them in performance.”

Freedom for Ólafsson results in playing that is meticulous, exciting in tempo, and subtly phrased.   

Ólafsson, who’s acclaimed for his performances of contemporary repertoire, including the music of Philip Glass, has chosen a diverse collection of keyboard pieces of J.S. Bach to feature on this album, from the familiar to the rarely heard.

On the familiar side, we hear some Two-Part Inventions, Sinfonias, and Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which have formed part of the keyboard student’s canon ever since the days Bach’s own students sweat over them. In Vikingur’s hands, these familiar pieces sound transformed, into works of contrapuntal virtuosity.

The seldom heard Aria variata (alla maniera Italiana) in A minor, BWV 989, shines with a quiet expressiveness in the aria theme, followed by variations that are alternately playful, sprightly, determined, and dancing.

Among the gems on this album are transcriptions of Bach’s works by Wilhelm Kempff, August Stradal, Ferrucio Busoni, Alexander Siloti, Ólaffson himself. And of utmost tenderness and surprising impishness — Ólaffson’s playing of Sergei Rachmaninoff's transcription of Bach’s Solo Violin Partita in E Major.

Lovers of the music of J.S. Bach will delight in our Classical Album of the Week, and Vikingur Ólafsson’s breathtaking performances.