Music Review: VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS (Colburn Recital at Disney Hall)

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by Tony Frankel on May 7, 2024

in Concerts / Events,Music,Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


VI once said in a review of pianist Víkingur Ólafsson that if you want to see a modern-day Glenn Gould-like master at the keys, here’s your chance. Well, the test really came the other night when Ólafsson returned to Disney Hall for his rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which many claim really belongs to Gould. Why? Gould made a kind of interpretation that was very unusual in his time. He’s one of the first keyboard players of the second half of the twentieth century who used articulation and the counterpoint rather than legato in the way of playing. Thus, I may have been wrong in my assumption.

LA Phil‘s Colburn Celebrity Series presented Ólafsson as part of his 2023–24 season dedicated to a Goldberg Variations world tour, performing the work across six continents throughout the year. Playing for a very full house — for a recital, that is — Ólafsson first came on stage wearing a suit and his trademark round spectacles with short, styled, dirty-brown hair; the tall thin Icelander looked more like an English Major student about to give a dissertation, which was apropos for his style of playing — meaning he offered a kinder, gentler almost Mozartian interpretation, and he left a huge impression. So, forget Glenn Gould (well, don’t forget him, just push him aside for the moment); This was a non-showy, introspective rendition that demanded a more attentive listener. And double that for me, as I sat in the East Terrace staring at his back, where I caught glimpses of his hands doing runs and crossover work in the reflection of the fallboard (or key lid) on the Steinway Grand. I could also see the hammers striking the keys at warp speed.

I loved when he first sat down how he gently glided his fingers over the length of the keyboard before he started playing the “Aria”, which is followed by 30 variations and the concluding aria transformed. With unparalleled fingerwork, tenderly hunched over the keys, he was like buttah, as they say, with sweet and tight pianissimo passages and runs, finishing phrases with a flourish. As a technician, he is flawless and meticulous, with incredibly long fingers that looked like gregarious dancing spiders as they flowed over the keys. He is one of the most meticulous craftsmen at the piano.

My favorite park of the 80-minutes was that he really knows how to play the notes — those crazy little nuggets of gold that even foresee the syncopation of Ragtime —  to make it come alive. There are so many notes (not too many notes, just 75,000 or so) that it’s up to the pianist to choose which ones are the most important — and Ólafsson could make sections practically jaunty and jumpy. But more often than not, he played soft — pianissississimo — and slow, which added about six minutes to the normal run time. And it worked, as viewers didn’t cough, shift, rustle, or drop one cell phone — a rarity and a miracle! Towards the one-hour mark, you could sense a little restlessness. For me, it was that I saw very little physical work (could Disney Hall have cameras one day like the Hollywood Bowl so we can see his fingerwork?), so the best thing to do was shut my eyes, as my evening was not something to watch but experience.

Until I saw him play Mozart last year, I always thought that Ólafsson was better-suited for Philip Glass and Bach (his all-Bach CD is 35 glorious tracks including transcriptions by Busconi, Rachmaninov, Siloti and Ólafsson himself). But he’s pretty much a genius on the keys no matter what he is playing. Utilizing the huge and diverse mixture in the Variations — different time signatures, textures, and harmonies — Ólafsson scurried over the keys in a glittery show of piano virtuosity that had me in a constant state of appreciation and awe. At the same time, his showy work never felt incongruous to the spirit of Bach. I truly feel he offered the most noteworthy and far-reaching analysis since Glenn Gould. In fact, Ólafsson’s Bach is truly inimitable (check out his 2023 recording of Goldberg). It was opulent but sensitive. I’ve not heard anyone that sounds quite like him with Bach. He rightfully received a furiously roaring ovation.

He put a microphone below his throat before an encore, so it was tough to make out all of his speech, but, speaking with a slight accent, his manner that of a professorial educated boyish gentleman, he said that Bach should probably not be followed with more Bach, so he offered more Bach! And more slow stuff, which seemed odd, because isn’t the encore for fireworks? Still watching someone play octaves at the same time as trills was trilling, er, thrilling. It was the second movement, Andante [Adagio], of the Organ Sonata No. 4, BWV 528, transcribed by Stradal. And I believe because it was soft and slow, the applause wasn’t rapturous enough to get another encore. An amazing event!

photos Timothy Norris for the LA Philharmonic

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