Poster Víkingur Ólafsson
Víkingur Ólafsson presents J.S. Bach's 'Goldberg Variations' on his latest album.
New Classical Tracks®

Vikingur Olafsson becomes the 'Goldberg Variations' on his latest album

New Classical Tracks (extended interview) - Vikingur Olafsson
New Classical Tracks - Vikingur Olafsson

Víkingur Ólafsson – Bach: Goldberg Variations (Deutsche Grammophon)

Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has dreamt of recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the past 25 years. Now, he’s finally done it. He’s also devoted his entire performing season to this iconic work, touring the globe across six continents. When he visited St. Paul, Minnesota, to perform at the Schubert Club’s International Artist Series, he stopped by our studios for a thoughtful conversation with my colleague Melissa Ousley. Like many pianists, it was Glenn Gould who first introduced him to these variations.  

“I have to be very honest and say it's the typical answer. The early Glenn Gould recording from 1955. I got that from my mother, who was a piano teacher, when I was 14, and it sort of blew my mind in so many different ways and changed the way I think about Bach.

“Before that, in my upbringing, I had seen Bach as a little bit strict and academic, and he was used in my musical upbringing to teach me good manners. You know, play evenly with both hands, not too much pedal, perfect control over dynamics, And then I heard the Goldberg Variations with Gould, and it's so full of youth and freshness. And I realized in an instant that Bach could be the great entertainer or that great virtuoso. He could be the philosopher and he could be the musical architect. He could be serious and not serious at the same time. And everything could coexist in Bach.”

Do you sometimes feel as though Goldberg is this living, breathing person that's with you and you wake him up to see what he has to say on a given day?

For a number of years, I thought Goldberg was a count. The guy who commissioned the piece and paid for it. It’s easy to find out that Goldberg was actually a 14-year-old student of Bach's.

“According to the story, Goldberg had to take a room right next to the count. And so when the count was having a sleepless night, he would supposedly wake up little Goldberg and have him play one or two pieces from the Goldberg Variations to soothe his nights.

“The Goldberg Variations are indeed named the Goldberg Variations as opposed to the Kaiserling variations, because this is, in the end, the performer’s piece, and each performer has to find their own Goldberg Variations, their own Bach, their own sense of logic.”

What have you learned about yourself so far through this process of recording and touring the piece?

The good thing I've learned is that I think I'm able to redefine them, at least for myself and hopefully for my public, in a way that makes me never become tired with them at the same time. I don't think I'm doing any gimmicks with them. I'm very much myself, and I'm very honest in the act of playing them. I would never do an effect for the sake of doing an effect in the Goldberg Variations. That would be just ridiculous. You don't really do anything. You try to become these variations, and they become an extension of you.”

And also the structure of the Goldberg Variations, where he brings the aria back at the end, which makes us sort of reflect.

“Magnificent as that conclusion is, we really crave that aria because you feel that the aria becomes the one constant in a constantly changing world. You feel like it is the one thing that will always be there. And the fact is the aria will go on, but we won't go on. And that's perhaps what the conclusion and the return of the aria makes us so aware of.”


Víkingur Ólafsson – Bach: Goldberg Variations (Deutsche Grammophon)

Víkingur Ólafsson – Bach: Goldberg Variations (Amazon)

Víkingur Ólafsson (official site)

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