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Bach strikes vital chord with pianist

Updated: 2024-06-11 07:12 ( China Daily )
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Vikingur Olafsson [Photo provided to China Daily]

Bach's Goldberg Variations, first published around 1741, is a musical peak that most major pianists have attempted to scale over the past centuries.

Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson has dreamed of recording this work for more than 20 years. On Oct 6,2023, he released an album of his interpretations of Bach's Goldberg Variations on Deutsche Grammophon, the world's oldest classical music label, founded in 1898.

During the 2023-24 season, the pianist is dedicating his performances to the Goldberg Variations with a world tour, performing in major venues across six continents, such as London's Southbank Centre in the United Kingdom, New York's Carnegie Hall in the United States and the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

He also made his debut appearance on the Chinese mainland from May 31 to Thursday, visiting Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province.

"To me, the Goldberg Variations' genius lies in each variation as it unfolds. One must be wholly gripped by its drama and affect, drawn into each marvelous little microcosm and filled with the joy of discovery," says Olafsson, who met his fans for a discussion in Beijing on the afternoon of June 3, the day after his concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

During the concert in Beijing, he played with the China NCPA Orchestra and conductor Wilson Ng.

His concert in Shanghai sold out within seven minutes. The pianist says that he is excited to bring Bach's masterpiece to major concert halls on the Chinese mainland to perform in front of new audiences.

"No matter how many times you play it or how many times you hold it up to the light, there's always more to discover," the pianist says, adding that he has played the music piece more than 90 times.

When the Goldberg Variations was published, it is said that the music piece was named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the private musician of a count who often suffered from insomnia.

Goldberg lived in the count's house and had to spend nights playing piano for him. The count once mentioned in Bach's presence that he wished for some clavier, or harpsichord, pieces for Goldberg to play, which should be gentle yet somewhat lively so that he might be a little cheered up in his sleepless nights.

The variations consequently take their popular name from their supposed first player. Later, the music piece was widely regarded as "soothing sleeping pills".

"The Goldberg Variations contain some of the most virtuosic keyboard music ever written, some of the most astonishingly brilliant uses of counterpoints in the repertoire and countless instances of exalted poetry, abstract contemplation and deep pathos — all within immaculately shaped structures of formal perfection," comments Olafsson. "In 30 variations, built on the humble harmonic framework of a simple, graceful aria, Bach turns limited material into boundless variety like no one before or since."

"With some of Bach's other works on this scale, I was inclined to think of the Goldberg Variations as a grand, commanding cathedral of music, magnificent in its structure and intricate in its ornamentation," he says. "I find another metaphor more apt: That of a grand oak tree, no less magnificent, but somehow organic, living and vibrant, its forms both responsive and regenerative, its leaves constantly unfurling to produce musical oxygen for its admirers through some metaphysical, time-bending photosynthesis."

The pianist also notes that he will turn 40 in 2024 and has been playing the Goldberg Variations publicly for about 10 years.

"It doesn't seem that high of an age, but I read the piece differently from when I was 30," he adds.

In 2018, the pianist released the album Johann Sebastian Bach, which won BBC Music magazine's Album of the Year in 2019 and numerous other Recording of the Year accolades.

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