I've been listening to this recording on full repeat for the past 24 hours. An amazing selection of Bach and Bach-inspired pieces, played with such musicality and technical precision. I already know that this will be an eternal favorite in my collection for years to come.
I had only recently discovered Vikingur Ólafsson after becoming a big fan of Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang. I had mostly been into the great 20th century pianists such as Arrau, Richter, Rubinstein, and Gilels but decided I should look into the "up-and-coming" young talents and I'm sure glad I did. Compared to Trifonov and Wang, Olafsson offers something quite different and "modernistic" for lack of a better term.
The overall sound and vibe are modern yet retains that timeless quality that is expected from Bach. I guess this is the one aspect of Bach that sets his music apart from most classical music. I used to be a Bach purist and sought out works performed on period instruments but my thoughts on that changed and I'm very open to listening to his keyboard works like 'The Well-Tempered Clavier', 'The Goldberg Variations' and the Paritas performed on the piano.
Sometimes the mathematical logic and symmetry of Bach's music can wear thin after a while and it's why I tend to gravitate towards the piano compositions of Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Ravel most of the time but I was intrigued by what I read about this album and decided to give it a shot. I really had no idea if I'd like it or not but I was immediately hooked, and it's been in regular rotation for me over the past few months. Not only do I listen to this album frequently, but it continues to grow on me with each and every listen.
Ólafsson has something special in that he allows the music to be at the center and the forefront, not the playing. This is the aspect I find the most critical in the pianists I listen to. Personally, I don't want the pianist's overwhelming virtuosity or personal idiosyncrasies get in the way of the music or the composers' intents. It's why I prefer Claudio Arrau much more over Vladimir Horowitz as great as Horowitz was. I hear the same type of quality in Olafsson's playing. Obviously, the technical virtuosity is there but it always comes down to what can one do with it.
This album is also distinguished by the variety of colors and moods that kept me interested from the beginning to end. I never find myself skipping tracks nor going back to replay certain tunes. I find that once I start playing this album, I listen to it all the way through even if I have to stop to attend to something else for a little while; I just come back to it and resume from where I left off.
I have a good deal of Bach's works that I had been collecting for decades and this one has become one of my favorites in a very short amount of time. Ólafsson infuses a fresh and modern artistic vision to Bach without detracting from the timeless nature of the music and I can understand the comparisons to Glenn Gould. For both the Bach aficionado (which I'm not but a genuine casual enthusiast) and the uninitiated, I'd heartily recommend this album for the splendid music and the artistic spirit contained within.
Per the headline, this is a stunning follow-up to his recording of selections from Philip Glass's Etudes. With the Glass, I was in wonderment at not only his technical facility but with the way Olafsson clarified the latent expressiveness of music that is burdened by the austere preconceptions have of 'minimalism.'
In this way, a similar view of Bach's music sometimes prevents listeners from finding the human connection, and again Olafsson embraces the piano is the expressive vehicle. I was even surprised at the warmth of familiar pieces from The Well-Tempered Clavier.
With technical facility in abundance and the willingness to shape performances around the sonic possibilities of the modern grand piano, this is well-deserving of its recent BBC Music 'Recording of the Year.' I look forward to more from Mr. Olafsson!