In this, his second DG release, the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has turned to the keyboard music of Bach, and given the quicksilver tempi and digital clarity in his Philip Glass, I was eager to listen. Ólafsson has taken time to formulate his views on Bach, stating that he is a composer who is perpetually undergoing change due to a question of instrument and the individual performer. It is not surprising to discover which pianists helped formulate his approach: Edwin Fischer, Rosalyn Tureck, Gilels and Argerich, not to mention the Canadian maverick Glenn Gould. I fully concur with his idea that while the academics tend to focus on his large-scale and monumental works like the Matthew Passion and the Goldbergs, it’s also equally possible to find such grandeur and mastery within a short keyborad prelude, a fugue or a movement from a cello suite. Here is a recital devoted to miniatures that magnify Bach’s mastery.

The first Glenn Gould recital I heard was a Bach disc entitled Preludes, Fughettas and Fugues on its release in 1979. I was still in my teens and instantly intoxicated. Gould showed that small pieces, often written as teaching aids, could, in fact, be minature masterpieces. Ólafsson holds many similarities with Gould but he is very much his own man when it comes to Bach. Not only are there examples from the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Inventions and Sinfonias, there is also a fine array of transcriptions from the likes of Busoni and Siloti, Rachmaninov, Kempff and even the pianist himself with a transcription from Cantata No 54. The only two longer works heard here are the Aria Variata and Variations (a practice run for the Goldbergs?) and Bach himself as transcriber with the beautifully effective arragement of Albinoni’s D Minor Oboe Concerto.

The vast panorama covered and the variety of chosen tempi show Ólafsson’s disc to be one of the most exciting since Gould. Like Gould, he sometimes offers the pieces as ‘stress tests’ but so strong is the sense of architecture that they can survive such extremes. Minatures as masterpieces.


Composer: Bach
Composition: Piano works
Performer: Víkingur Ólafsson p
Catalogue Number: DG 4835022