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Víkingur Ólafsson's Extraordinary Goldberg Year

Updated: Apr 29

The Icelandic pianist has devoted 88 concerts to Bach’s keyboard masterpiece, and nothing else.


Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is nearing the end of an 88-concert world tour, playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations in many of the world’s major concert halls. Photo courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County
 

Most concert pianists in the midst of their careers follow a familiar path: performing the warhorse concertos with major orchestras, punctuated by solo recitals heavy on Classical and Romantic masterworks with Lisztian bravura.


Not Víkingur Ólafsson. The 40-year-old Icelandic pianist has staked out a rarified corner in the realm of virtuoso pianism: the intellectual’s musician. In his almost two-decade career, Ólafsson has followed his own distinctive muse, debuting demanding piano concertos by Icelandic composers, recording obscure as well as popular works, collaborating with Icelandic pop princess Björk, and championing the music of American composers John Adams and Philip Glass. 


His unusual path continues. Few pianists of Ólafsson’s caliber would take more than a year out of their busy careers to devote to one cerebral score – Bach’s Goldberg Variations – performed in 88 concerts throughout Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia. (All pianists know the significance of that number.) The Goldberg tour was enhanced by Ólafsson’s recording of the variations, released by Deutsche Grammophon last October. The epic journey comes to Orange County on May 2 and ends with a concert in Krün, Germany on June 28.


In a conversation with Culture OC, Ólafsson’s reverence for Bach is immediately apparent. “He was a great structuralist and almost a musical mathematician,” the pianist said. “But at the same time he's also the greatest poet. Poet, entertainer, philosopher – he can be so many things at the same time.” 


It takes a special kind of pianist to play the Goldberg Variations. Until 22-year-old Glenn Gould made them fashionable in his career-making 1955 recording, they were largely considered a slightly fusty academic exercise, the province of harpsichordists and music theorists. But Gould gave them a cachet that they’ve never lost, and his performance – brainy, thoughtful and at times undeniably fun –  opened the door for others to place their own stamp on them: András Schiff, Rosalyn Tureck, Peter Serkin, Murray Perahia, Simone Dinnerstein. 


Those who come to Ólafsson’s Philharmonic Society concert at Segerstrom Concert Hall will hear the Goldberg Variations as they were meant to be played, with each half of every movement – the opening and closing aria, plus 30 variations – played twice. (Gould skipped the repetitions.)


By all accounts, Ólafsson’s Goldberg interpretation is hypnotic, mesmerizing and transformative. Bach takes us on a dense and mercurial voyage of discovery, and Ólafsson is famous for holding audiences rapt. 


His focus is legendary. At a recent performance in Adelaide, Australia, a critic reported that “one audience member in the front row was showing signs of discomfort, and Ólafsson turned his eyes to her and in a low voice asked if she was okay – this while his finger work continued impeccably and without interruption.”


Víkingur Ólafsson’s career has been distinguished by bold artistic choices and unusual collaborations. He decided to perform Bach’s keyboard masterpiece as a break from his busy schedule playing concertos with orchestras. Photo courtesy of PSOC

‘My 14-year-old head exploded’

The first time he heard Bach’s keyboard masterpiece, at 14, Ólafsson was immersed in other styles of music.


“At that point in my life, I was listening almost exclusively to the Russian piano school. And my mother, a piano teacher, was a bit worried about that. She wanted me to have more input into my development. And she pointed out to me Glenn Gould and the Goldberg recording.”


Listening to Gould’s approach was a revelation, Ólafsson remembers.


“My thinking about Bach changed instantly just from hearing it. I think my 14-year-old head exploded a little bit.” He laughed. “It made me realize you could play the piano in a deeper way; you could actually keep three, four or five different voices in the texture.”


Víkingur Ólafsson plays Bach/Marcello Concerto in D minor BWV 974

“Up until that point, I had had a lot of Bach in my musical upbringing, but he was very much used in a rather academic context. My early piano teachers would use Bach to teach good musical manners and good technique. When I played Bach I liked it, but it was a little bit more like solving a puzzle in my young head.“


To Ólafsson, Gould’s recording also brought forth a fundamental shift in the way Bach was perceived. 


“(Gould) changed the way we think about Bach overnight, but also about that piece. (He showed) for all of us that this is the greatest keyboard work of all time. It’s kind of a staggering achievement for a, what, 22-year-old?”


Ólafsson waited until he was a bit older than that – around 30 – before he publicly performed the Goldberg Variations. “It was a very important work for me at that time of my life,” he recalled. But they didn’t become a regular part of his performance repertoire. “I released another Bach album back in 2018 and decided to rest the Goldberg Variations, which are so central to my life, for a few years and come back to them.”


Now, in the middle of his extraordinary and boundary-pushing career, Ólafsson thinks Bach’s intimidating masterpiece is the right work at the right time.


“I turned 40 this past February, and I was thinking that I wanted to have a different kind of touring season. I thought, ‘What if I do a whole world tour with the Goldberg Variations and challenge myself, hopefully to keep renewing myself and finding … new truth in this work –  do 88 variations on these 30 variations and try to try to find something unique each night?’”


Ólafsson describes his Goldberg tour as “a workaholic’s sabbatical. I wanted to have a year off from the bigger profession, from the orchestras and from conductors and from all that kind of touring.” He paused. “And to just be alone with Bach – traveling with my suitcase and with this piece to see what happens, you know?”


Víkingur Ólafsson. Photo courtesy of PSOC
Like doing gymnastics naked

For Ólafsson, taking on such a Herculean and quixotic project is justified by the reward of revelation. 


“I don't regret it. I’ve played them 70-something times and I'm far from tired from it. And I feel like I play them very, very differently at this point than I did in August when I started the tour.


“It’s a little bit like a painter working with the same subject matter and trying to find new perspectives. Every little decision you make in the performance will then influence how you do the next measure. So in a way, something you decide early on will then definitely affect the whole picture.


“But that's something I always try with anything I do, you know? I want to have a feeling of discovery in every performance.”


Víkingur Ólafsson plays excerpts from Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Maintaining a stratospheric level of artistry with each performance can be taxing, Ólafsson said. “The preparation is very much both a physical and non-physical thing. But the physical part of it is interesting because playing all variations is very exposing. It's almost like doing Olympic gymnastics – naked. You’re never done practicing them, trying to fine-tune your muscles and your nerve signals from your brain to your fingertips.”


Ólafsson is a bit uncomfortable when talk turns to his cerebral side. In other interviews he has dismissed comparisons to Gould, and he is loath to talk about his career or his choices of repertoire as singular or special. 


“It’s so difficult to define yourself in that way, because it can so easily be read as self-congratulatory. What I hope defines me is that I'm very critical of myself and I try to get better at what I do. 


“I love to record, I love to analyze myself in that way, and I choose music to play that exposes my weaknesses and my strengths, you know? I'm just going for that – going for honesty. But I think that the more detail (I provide about) what makes me me is, well, that’s something that's probably better for me to shut up about.”


But even a brief conversation with the Icelandic pianist reveals a mind that goes to places most virtuosi never explore, especially when it comes to the metaphysical meaning of music. His feelings about the underlying import of the Goldberg Variations reveal the mind of a theologian as much as a musician.


The repetition of the aria at the end is “a tragic moment,” Ólafsson said. He described it as akin to looking back on your life as it’s about to end. “And that's what (we feel) collectively when we have that moment together. The aria comes back, and then we lose it again. It's one of the most tragic moments in music. Not because the music sounds so tragic, but because we feel our own impending death, you know. It is going on without us.”


Víkingur Ólafsson Plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Where: Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. May 2

Cost: $23-$168

Contact: 949-553-2422 or tickets.philharmonicsociety.org



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