Víkingur Ólafsson: Goldberg Variations

Vikingur Olafsson Goldberg Variations Adelaide Festival 2024Adelaide Festival. Adelaide Town Hall. 15 Mar 2024


Every now and then, one is fortunate enough to experience the truly sublime in a concert. It happens infrequently, but when it does, the experience is transformative and becomes etched into one’s memory, indeed soul. Víkingur Ólafsson’s performance of JS Bach’s The Goldberg Variations as part of the Adelaide Festival is one such event.


Ólafsson hails from Iceland where he received his initial musical training, and later attended and graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. In his mid-twenties he established and started recording for his own indie-record label (Dirrindí). He has since embarked on a stellar international career as a concert pianist and has amassed an impressive array of important awards, accolades, and enthusiastic reviews. He is one of the finest pianists alive, and his performances are underscored by acute understanding of the music he plays and the ability to play it with crystal clear clarity and resolute purpose. He is indeed remarkable.


Bach’s Goldberg Variations comprises a theme (the so-called “aria”), thirty variations centred on the bass line (of the aria rather than its melody), and finally a recapitulation of the aria. It was composed originally for a two-manual harpsichord, and Bach indicated those variations to be played using one hand on each manual. (Indeed, they were composed with that in mind, but they are playable on a single manual instrument or piano, but with attendant difficulty.) Ólafsson swept these difficulties aside and gave a masterful display of exquisite technique and made the cross-hand work look easy.


The Goldbergs, as it is affectionally known, is one of the pillars of the keyboard repertoire, and many pianists have recorded the work or performed it or both. Some examples are famous, such as recordings by the legendary Glenn Gould who shot to fame with his iconic 1955 recording. Since then, the Goldbergs have been re-expressed in many different instrumental arrangements – some work, others don’t – but those that do keep the counterpoint clear and unfussed. In 2018, the Australian Chamber Orchestra performed an arrangement in the Adelaide Town Hall by Bernard Labadie for a baroque ensemble. That arrangement worked well. In 2022, pianist Andrea Lam performed the Goldbergs in the Adelaide Town Hall and Paul Grabowsky followed with his own improvised version (!). In the 2008 Adelaide Fringe Festival, Grabowsky joined forces with Clemens Leske Jnr to present the same program. The audiences admired Grabowsky’s extemporisation but made it reasonably clear that they preferred the Goldbergs ‘as written’.


The popularity of the composition remains solid, and the near capacity audience at the Town Hall to hear Ólafsson’s interpretation bears testimony to that.


Dressed in an elegant blue suit, the blonde headed Ólafsson took to the stage, bowed to the audience, sat at the Steinway, placed both hands at the centre and gently caressed every white key as his slender hands moved in retrograde motion across the full length of the keyboard. A not so private communion with the instrument that would produce magic for the next eighty minutes at his and Bach’s ministering.


The aria was played with simplicity and no fuss. After Ólafsson coaxed the tender melody he almost immediately went into the first variation. Later, the eighth variation saw his fine hand-crossing work on show, and one could almost see the delineation of the sinews and tendons in his hands as he weaved the fingers of both hands together. No loss of evenness. Persistent clarity. The repeated voices in the canon variations were acutely articulated, and the mathematical logic inherent in Bach’s scripting was laid bare before our ears. Before we were even are aware of it, we were at the last ‘variation’ which stands in contrast to the others. It is an explosion of energy, humour, and joie de vivre. It can be tempting to inject too much ‘life’ into it thereby risking the balance of the entire performance, but Ólafsson kept his head and segued into the repeat of the aria as if he was calling on an old friend.


Ólafsson can rightly consider The Goldbergs to be an ‘old friend’, as he is part way through a world tour in which he is giving in excess of eighty consecutive performances of the work. One can only wonder at what other intricacies and understandings he will discover in the work as his relationship with it deepens and matures (if that were even possible!).


At the conclusion of his performance, Ólafsson took multiple bows to the adulation of an ecstatic audience that rose as one to its feet. He spoke gently and thanked the audience for gracing his Australian debut, and that he couldn’t possibly consider an encore. How does one possibly top The Goldbergs? Perhaps the repetition of the aria was indeed Bach’s own prescription for an encore?


Víkingur Ólafsson’s performance of JS Bach’s The Goldberg Variations was simply astonishing.


Kym Clayton


When: 15 Mar

Where: Adelaide Town Hall

Bookings: Closed