Rhinegold Photo credit: Ari Magg


Víkingur Ólafsson on Bach

8:03, 16th October 2019

For Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, named Gramophone Artist of the Year 2019, Bach’s keyboard works offer an intimate and revelatory glimpse into the more human aspects of the composer. Yet, he says, art always transcends the artist, no matter how close he feels to Bach as a man

Many of us have a tendency to think of Johann Sebastian Bach in the colossal sense. We know him as the Fifth Evangelist, the ultimate musical mathematician, and the architect behind glorious cathedrals in sound no less impressive than their counterparts in stone, wood and stained glass. It is easy to forget that the man behind the St Matthew Passion and the Goldberg Variations also excelled at telling great stories in just a minute or two of music.

In his smaller keyboard works, like the ones I chose to record for my latest album, many less ubiquitous facets of Bach’s complex character are on display. These works reveal his sense of humour, his rhetorical flair and penchant for provocation, in addition to his philosophical depth and spiritual exaltation. They display emotions ranging from mischievous lightheartedness to grief, rage and exasperation. Through these, we encounter not only Bach the composer, but also Bach the keyboard virtuoso, Bach the master of improvisation, and Bach the meticulous teacher. These works feel like a rare and valuable encounter with the human side of the musical colossus.

By all accounts, Bach’s command of the keyboard was masterful, unrivalled in his day. The keyboard instruments were his livelihood for decades, but also his playground. Even though he revised and refined the keyboard works to the point of perfection, many pieces retain an improvisatory joy and spontaneity of thought – invaluable clues as to how Bach thought about music.

Not everything, however, is gained from getting closer to the person behind the music. In fact, it is a firm belief of mine that great art always transcends the artist, and the music of Bach is no exception. For me, Bach’s music is greater than any individual, any generation, any school of thought; indeed, Bach’s music is greater than Bach himself. To quote what the great Hungarian-American pianist and pedagogue György Sebök said to me once when I was in my early teens and starting to find my own way in Bach’s music: ‘Bach is a free country.’ Sebök knew a thing or two about freedom and the lack thereof, and his words have stayed with me ever since.

Víkingur Ólafsson: ‘Bach’s music is greater than Bach himself’ (Photo credit: Ari Magg)

The moment you open a score of Bach’s music, the well-known paradox reveals itself: the music is both incredibly rich and strikingly sparse. The musical structures are very detailed, but there are hardly any indications as to how you should shape them in performance. Every element is up for debate: tempi, dynamics, proportions, articulation – the list goes on. We performers must weigh our knowledge of period style against our individual and inescapably contemporary sensibility; our faithfulness to what we believe to have been the composer’s intention against our freedom to discover possibilities in the music that the composer could never have foreseen – some of them made available by the modern instrument. There is no single, correct solution. This is a strangely liberating realisation: with one of the greatest creators in music history, it is simply unavoidable for the aspiring performer to become a co-creator. For this reason, I love to hear how other people perform Bach’s works. It clearly reveals how they listen to and think about music – not just Bach’s music, but all music.

Through its inherent openness, Bach’s keyboard music has become a musical mirror for every generation of pianists, reflecting the tastes and values of each period. While some works go in and out of vogue, others enjoy a stable popularity but undergo radical changes in the way they are understood and interpreted. Bach today generally sounds quite different from Bach 30 years ago, and still more different from Bach 50 years ago. In that sense his music is contemporary rather than classical. It has the potential to feel more or less as new today as it did 300 years ago. Like the works of Shakespeare, they are ‘not of an age, but for all time’.

In deciding what to record for this album, I also found myself pondering the meaning of what is original and what is borrowed – copied, and sometimes augmented, reworked, transformed. I decided to include several transcriptions of Bach’s works in addition to original versions. Here, too, each generation has something to say. There are transcriptions by Busoni and Stradal that emphasise lush, organ-like sonorities. Rachmaninov brings in golden-age pianism and flirts with jazzy elements. Siloti (Rachmaninov’s teacher) explores sound and texture, while Kempff tests the technical limits of the performer. I have made my own transcription of the aria from Cantata 54, ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’ (Stand firm against sin), to see where I can take one of my favourite cantatas on the piano. The album also contains an example of Bach’s own transcriptions: his wonderful keyboard arrangement of Marcello’s Oboe Concerto. For Bach, as for so many others, copying paved the way for novelty.

Bach frequently borrowed from himself as well, using the same or very similar motifs in different, sometimes contrasting works. In many ways, I have put together this album by ear – allowing myself to highlight unexpected thematic familiarities and connections. One example of a family resemblance is the very first measure of the album, the playful and carefree Prelude in G major, which uses the same motif as the opening measure of the last work on the album, the tragic and existential Fantasia and Fugue in A minor. The discerning listener will no doubt spot many other links, echoes and parallels.

Víkingur Ólafsson has been named Artist of the Year 2019 at the Gramophone Awards following his album of solo works for keyboard by J S Bach (Deutsche Grammophon 00028948350223)


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