Top positive review
Rule-breaking, spellbinding, and gorgeous
Reviewed in the United States on October 10, 2018
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.