MIL-OSI China: ​Víkingur Ólafsson takes Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ to China

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Source: China State Council Information Office 3

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson captivated a sold-out audience at the Shanghai Symphony Hall on May 31 with a mesmerizing 75-minute performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” The concert, a testament to Ólafsson’s growing popularity in China, saw tickets snapped up within a mere 7 minutes of release, with the audience erupting in applause and cheers following the virtuoso’s stunning display.

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson performs at the Shanghai Symphony Hall in Shanghai, May 31, 2024. [Photo courtesy of Universal Music Group]

“For me, playing Bach is like breathing, like writing a personal diary,” Ólafsson said at a sharing event held in Beijing on June 3. “Bach is my mirror. I play Bach on the piano to understand myself and to understand the world.”

Ólafsson’s love for Bach began in his childhood, but it was a recording by master pianist Edwin Fischer that he heard as a teenager that truly ignited his passion.

“It was so beautiful. It was the first time in my life that I realized Bach is not just a brilliant composer of musical structures, he is an incredible poet,” Ólafsson said. “And the structure translates into human experience in a very special way and in a different way for everyone. For everyone who listens, we all have our own Bach, and that’s why I love him.”

The Icelandic pianist is currently dedicating his entire 2023-24 season to touring the monumental “Goldberg Variations” globally across six continents, with an album released on Deutsche Grammophon in October 2023.

This follows his highly acclaimed 2018 recording, “Johann Sebastian Bach,” which won numerous awards, including BBC Music Magazine’s Album of the Year and Opus Klassik’s Solo Recital award. Now, he continues to bring his unique musical vision and an affecting, meticulously recorded sound to Bach’s music.

Ólafsson believes Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations” to be one of the most technically challenging and profound pieces of keyboard music ever composed, with brilliant uses of counterpoint and instances of exalted poetry, abstract contemplation, and deep pathos – all within immaculately shaped structures of formal perfection. In 30 variations, built on the humble harmonic framework of a simple, graceful aria, Bach transforms limited material into boundless variety like no one before or since.

“When you play Bach, you cannot hide anything, neither technically nor, more importantly, musically. I think that’s because he wrote the pieces with such incredibly maximal structure and minimal instruction on how to play them,” Ólafsson said. “With Bach, you have to be very creative. You have to make many more decisions than with any other composer in history. You almost become a co-creator. But this is why I love Bach, and why I have changed with Bach.”

Bach’s influence and relevance persist in the internet era, as he remains one of the most popular artists on streaming platforms. Ólafsson pointed out that people love the musician because he brings balance to sometimes unbalanced society, and “he brings great things to you, whether you’re happy or sad.”

Despite decades of practice and performance, the Icelandic pianist explained why he had not recorded the “Goldberg Variations” until now. Ólafsson stated that recording the piece at the age of 40 allowed him to offer a more nuanced interpretation, enlightened and influenced by figures such as Edwin Fischer’s romantic Bach, Glenn Gould’s modern Bach, Murray Perahia’s noble Bach, Grigory Sokolov’s Russian Bach, and Dinu Lipatti’s angelic, heavenly Bach. Now, he appreciates the diverse aspects of Bach, aiming to deliver an authentic interpretation that avoids mere imitation.

“I think it takes time to find your own Bach,” he said. “So when you play Bach with all the variations, you become the variations and the variations become you. And that is the beauty of music. And that’s the beauty of Bach.”

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson shares his passion for and understanding of Johann Sebastian Bach and his music at a sharing session held at Steinway Hall Beijing in Beijing on June 3, 2024. [Photo courtesy of Cai Leilei and Universal Music Group]

To date, Ólafsson has performed the “Goldberg Variations” at 96 concerts worldwide, including landmark venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, and Vienna’s Golden Hall. After the sharing session in Beijing, he performed Bach’s beautiful “Organ Sonata No. 4, BWV 528: II. Andante,” along with the “Aria” and “Var. 1” of “The Goldberg Variations,” once again mesmerizing the on-site audience.

“I have played it more than 90 times around the world, and those are over 90 different ‘Goldberg Variations.’ Even if you’re playing the same notes, the notes take on new meaning and new life every night. With different tempos and dynamics, it becomes a new piece,” he said, noting that releasing just one record of the “Goldberg Variations” is not enough, and he could do 30 versions of it.

The pianist’s “Goldberg Variations” world tour will continue in China in June, with the next stops in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Afterward, he will continue his performances in Europe and conclude the tour in Germany.

He nostalgically recalled the days when he studied music in New York, where he also met many Chinese friends. “I used Bach a lot to help myself become a stronger musician, to stop waiting for the teacher to tell me how to do things and to become my own teacher in art. I think Bach helped me with that; he has been my mirror and my yardstick ever since.”

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