Víkingur Ólafsson’s Beautiful Bach

Should Bach be romantic?

Let me start by asking the more fundamental question: Should Bach be “allowed” to be played on a contemporary piano?

I personally think Bach wouldn’t have minded. Keyboard instruments were under constant evolution during his time, he was very open to adapting music from one instrument to another (and often did so with his own work). Now, what Bach would have done had he been able to ever play a modern Steinway is a very interesting, if rather theoretical question.

Now, does playing on a modern piano allow you to have a “romantic” sound while playing good old JSB?  Let’s explore this thought with this recently released album.

Víkingur Ólafsson: Johann Sebastian Bach

Víkingur Ólafsson Johann Sebastian Bach Vikingur Olafsson Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Víkingur Ólafsson is only the second Icelandic musician I know (Silly Bjork jokes, anybody?).

He rose to fame at rather young age with his Philipp Glass album (and being signed by Deutsche Grammophon), now he releases his first venture into Bach.

To give you an example what I mean by “romantic”, is track no. 31, the adagio from BWV974. In a way, this could easily be the slow movement of a Mendelssohn or Schubert work.

Do I mind? Au contraire, I really like this album. It is a very personal approach, a very personal selection of material as well. But it never falls into the trap of being the only thing you’re not allowed to be with Bach, which is boring.

To make this album even more appealing to me, we get yet another piano transcription of one of the violin partitas (see here for my original article on the topic)

And also when you take individual well known works like the excerpts of the Well Tempered Clavier, it is very apparent that Olafsson knows what he’s doing, even compared to famous reference versions.

So to answer my initial question: it’s a very clear yes!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prostudiomasters)

Author: Musicophile

I'm not a professional musician, I don't work in the music industry, I'm just what the name says, somebody who loves music. I've been in love with music for all of my life, took piano lessons for nearly 10 years, and played in several amateur Jazz groups. I go to concerts, both classical and Jazz, quite regularly. And I collect music previously on vinyl and CDs, now on my computer, and am slightly OCD on my music collection. You can reach me at Musicophile1(AT)gmail.com

13 thoughts on “Víkingur Ólafsson’s Beautiful Bach”

  1. Completely agree. He’s got an incredibly refreshing voice. nice review! I definitely recommend his Bach Reworks album (SERIES) as well if you’re into DG’s ambient/experimental releases — the first installment is great.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve also reviewed this along with this Philip Glass CD. As I say there, I also find the booklet notes illuminating. He really knows how to perform Bach rather than just show-off. Very much agree with your review.


  3. I really like this. And while he doesn’t just “show off,” he isn’t afraid to do what I loved early Glenn Gould for – play Bach *fast*. I think when you hear his and Gould’s tempi, you instantly realize Master Bach was very likely a bit of a show-off himself. What I fear most with Bach is an over-solemn (as you put it, boring) approach, and this is never that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Listening to samples online, this seems to me to be mostly – in the faster pieces – an inflexible, harsh, aggressive approach which substitutes hard accents for dynamic shaping and staccato for differentiated articulation. And, indeed, if played fast but with no understanding of the structure of the music – how one set of semiquavers differs from another – it *is* boring. The second track is a prime example. It doesn’t sound like music, it sounds like an exercise to strengthen the fingers. Making the piano sound *more* mechanical than the harpsichord or organ is quite an achievement I suppose.
    Far from being ‘interesting’ or ‘refreshing’, it’s simply taking certain aspects of ‘interestingly bad’ Bach playing to their logical extreme.
    Then, because such a robotic, arbitrarily violent approach would tire the ear and brain if continued indefinitely, we get a few Romantically ‘beautiful’ morsels to calm the nerves.

    By the way .. if you thought was so good why only 4 stars?


    1. Hi Tom and thanks for your feedback. Wow, I’m impressed how much you don’t like this album. I’ve seen both raving and “meh“ reviews of this album, but obviously reviews are the most subjective things in the world, particularly for Bach on a modern piano. I for example don’t get what all the Gould fuzz is all about and he’s so much admired. And like you, I really also can’t stand the “typewriter” approach to Bach that many players over the last 40 years adopted. All that said, in summary I find this album really enjoyable. The reason why I didn’t give 5 stars is that while I like it, this is no Murray Perahia either. Out of interest: who are your references with regards to Bach on a modern piano?


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