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We’re in the midst of a renaissance of piano interpretations of Bach’s keyboard music. After a generation or two of harpsichordists and period specialists informing us of the “true” Bach sound, phrasing, ornamentation, and terraced dynamics, we now have a new generation of pianists reclaiming Bach, without apology, for the modern instrument. These pianists have fully assimilated period-informed eighteenth-century idioms and historically informed techniques while refusing to censure the tonal possibilities of a grand piano.
With each new interpreter, the pianistic elements seems to be increasingly prominent in relief to the historical elements. What matters here is superior musical intelligence so as not to subvert Bach’s essential counterpoint and harmonic rhythm.
Post-Gouldian performances by Andras Schiff, were followed by Simone Dinnerstein and Piotr Anderszewski, have not been ashamed to flex pianistic muscle. Angela Hewitt, a fine interpreter, by contrast, never lets the harpsichord out of her mind, and only subtly applies coloristic pianism.
Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson’s Bach is truly unique. His is the most remarkable and radical interpretation since Glenn Gould. Partly due to the unusually rich inclusion of “organ-crossover” transcription selections in this album, as well as rarely recorded pieces, there is hardly anyone else out there that sounds like him. His style also differs from the models which he confesses has shaped him: Fischer, Tureck, Gould, and Argerich
He performs Willhelm Kempff’s transcription of the chorale prelude “Nun freut euch” (S.734) so astonishing fast, with such pointillistic panache, that one can barely believe it wasn’t digitally fabricated. The obbligato is airborne, the cantus shines forth, and the bass line plunks along in a curious bee-bop manner. It’s a startling, jaw-dropping performance. Joyous!
Another organ transcription, the Adagio from the Organ Trio Sonata #4 in E minor (S.528), is so beautifully and magnificently realized, one couldn’t imagine a better performance. The three voices are, at times, hushed and nuanced, and at other times grandly flashing out in an organ-like swell. The deceptive cadence at the end is executed in a purposefully stretched out way to lend a jarring tonal ambiguity before the final cadence. I’ve always treasured E. Power Biggs’ interpretation of this on pedal harpsichord, but, Ólafsson here is memorable.
Along with some selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Ólafsson’s own transcription of the aria “Widerstehe doch der Sünde”. (S.54) is surprisingly effective. No Goldbergs are performed here, just the quirky, melancholic, and rarely performed “Aria variata,” S.989.
On first hearing this album, one can be startled with Ólafsson’s novel approach, but one is drawn to listen over and over, and admit his merits place him near that of the greatest Bach interpreters, like Glenn Gould.
This is my first encounter with pianist VÍkingur Ólafsson, but I certainly doubt it'll be my last. This is Bach piano playing as electrifying as Glen Gould was at the beginning of his career, but in a very different way. On this imaginative disc, featuring a large and varied mélange of diverse Bach pieces, Ólafsson scampers across the keyboard in a dazzling display of piano virtuosity that leaves one in a continual state of admiration, but never feeling it is somehow inappropriate for the music. Let me add that DG's engineers have presented this in an exemplary Red Book CD sound at its best. Go for it. - Buy it now, as a Christmas present to yourself or someone you love. It is extraordinary.
Not since Wilhelm Kempff's recording of works by Bach in the 1950s have I gotten so much out of Bach's music (for keyboard) on repeated listenings. This Icelandic fellow has marvelous fingers and a feeling for Bach. If his interpretation of the Fantasy and Fugue in A minor does not attain the level of Edwin Fisher's, for instance, you could hardly ask for more in the other works on the disc.
I've never heard of this artist but after reading a review in a classical magazine and love Bach decided to give it a try and found the disk highly enjoyable. I have quite a large collection of Bach recordings and this one I've come back to numerous times. I hope this is the start of many Bach recordings from this artist.
I do not post reviews for music in general as taste is subjective. That being said, in my sizable physical and digital collection of JS Bach's solo works on piano, the last time a recording stood my arm hairs on end was when I was 17 years old and heard of the passing of Glenn Gould. I bought both versions of his interpretation for the Goldberg Variations and a voyage of discovery began, for which I will be eternally grateful for his gift to the world.
Fast forward almost 4 decades' [!] later: Vikingur's interpretation of the Bach pieces selected on this recording brought back that same sense of excitement and wonder when I discovered Glenn Gould. To date, just the first two tracks alone continue to raise my arm hairs again repeatedly while listening to them :)
I cannot recommend this highly enough, and will look forward to future releases from this rightfully accoladed artist.
I have an extensive collection of glen Goulds Bach playing. Olaffsons articulation and tone is, due to superior recording now,even better than Goulds. I look foreward to his future recordings of much more of Bachs keyboard works. this Icelandic artist is truly a genius! and at a early age!
I can't stop playing this music. I am in awe that these pieces are 300 years old. Mr. Olafsson has masterfully made them fresh and current. The Organ Sonata No.4 in E minor is exceptional and deeply moving. I am a new Bach convert!
Extraordinary in every sense. Stunning playing, an articulation that is out of this world, a wonderful repertoire selection, and a recording that is absolutely exceptional. Rarely have I heard such perfection on so many levels.
Delightful performances; the technique is impeccable and the structural line of the melody is brought out, often in an unexpected or imaginative manner. Not for nothing has he been referred to as “Iceland’s Glenn Gould.”