By Karl W. Nehring
Works: performed by Vikingur Olafsson, piano: Prelude and Fughetta in G Major BWV 902 – Prelude; Chorale Prelude BWV 734 "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein" transcribed by Wilhelm Kempff; Prelude And Fugue in E minor BWV 855; Organ Sonata in E minor BWV 528 (transcr. August Stradal); Prelude and Fugue in D Major BWV 850; Chorale Prelude BWV 659 "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" (transcr. Busoni); Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847; "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" BWV 54 (transcr. Olafsson); Aria variata in A minor BWV 989; Invention No. 12 in A Major BWV 783; Sinfonia No. 12 in A Major BWV 798; Partita No. 3 for Violin Solo in E Major BWV 1006 – 3. Gavotte (transcr. Rachmaninov); Prelude and Fugue in E minor BWV 855a – Prelude (transcr. to B minor by Alexander Siloti); Sinfonia No. 15 in B minor BWV 801; Invention No. 15 in B minor BWV 786; Harpsichord Concerto in D minor BWV 974; Chorale Prelude BWV 639 "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" (transcr. Busoni); Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV 904.
Reworks: Vikingur Olafsson piano on all tracks, other performers in parentheses, composers other than Bach in brackets: [Bach/Christian Badzura] For Johann; (Valgeir Sigurðsson, electronics) Prelude, BWV 855a - Valgeir Sigurðsson Rework; [Bach/Badzura] Prelude in G Major; (Peter Gregson, cello/electronics) [Bach/Gregson] Above And Below, B minor; (Ben Frost, synthesizer programming) [Bach/Frost] Prelude, BWV 855a - Ben Frost Ladder Mix; Aria from Widerstehe Doch Der Sünde, BWV 54, transcribed by Olafsson; (Ryuichi Sakamoto, electronics) [Bach/Sakamoto] BWV 974 - II Adagio – Rework; (Hildur Guðnadóttir, cello) [Bach/ Guðnadóttir] Minor C Variation; [Bach/Badzura] ...And At the Hour of Death; (Hans-Joachim Roedelius, electronics; Thomas Rabitsch, sound design) [Bach/Roedelius/Rabitsch] Bach Mit Zumutungen; (Skúli Sverrisson, electronics; Anthony Burr, bass clarinet/synthesizer; Olöf Arnalds, voice; Albert Finnbogason, Moog; Borgar Magnason, acoutic bass) [Bach/Sverrisson ] Kyriena; (Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir, piano) Sonatina from Gottes Zeit Ist Die Allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (transcribed for piano four-hands by György Kurtag).
Perhaps presenting such a detailed track listing is a case of overkill on my part; however, I wanted readers to see and appreciate just how wide and deep this new two-CD Bach bonanza from Icelandic pianist (and friends) Vikingur Olafsson really is. Based on my appreciation for the keyboard music of Bach and my enthusiasm for what I have heard previously from this pianist, I looked forward to auditioning this set and was predisposed to like it – but when I first heard it, I was amazed at just how exciting it sounded, and if anything, my enthusiasm has only increased with each subsequent listening (and yes, there have been many). There are simply too many tracks for me to describe them all in this review, but I will share some of my reactions to many of them below.
The first disc, titled "Works," is an extensive Bach piano recital. In his fascinating and informative liner notes, Olafsson discusses his appreciation for Bach, his regard for other pianists whose approaches to playing Bach have captured his interest over the years, and the development of his appreciation for these keyboard gems. As he recounts, "I have always had a tendency to think of Bach mostly in the colossal sense, as the architect behind glorious cathedrals of sound… It is easy to forget that the man behind the St. Matthew Passion and the Goldberg Variations also excelled at telling great stories in just a minute or two of music. In the smaller keyboard works, various facets of Bach's complex character are on display. These works reveal his sense of humour, his rhetorical flair and penchant for provocation, in addition to his philosophical depth and spiritual exaltation. Through them, we encounter not only Bach the composer, but also Bach the keyboard virtuoso, Bach the master of improvisation, and Bach the meticulous teacher."
From the first phrases of the first track on Works, Vikingur brings both clarity and energy with his crisp, clear fingering and sprightly – but never manic – interpretation. In the following Chorale Prelude, he brings out the contrast between the slower left-hand foundation and the quicker right-hand melodies. In the slower selections, such as Track 5, from Bach's Organ Sonata No. 4, he fashions Bach's music into a contemplative evening meditation. It is fascinating to hear how notes originally written to be played on an organ can be so well served by the piano. Another such contemplative interpretation comes to the fore in Track 8, a transcription of a Chorale Prelude, which Vikingur plays singingly and expressively, belying the piano's taxonomy as a percussion instrument. But when precision and clarity are called for, such as in the following Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Vikingur brings the energy.
Bach's Aria variata comprises a dozen brief tracks that are yes, varied in their styles. You hear dancing, singing, playfulness, but also softness and warmth. Track 28, the Sinfonia No. 15 in B minor, almost seems to tell a story in less than a minute and a half. Delightful! The following composition, the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, consists of three brief movements, with the central Adagio sounding like slow Mozart. Lovely! The penultimate composition on Works is a Chorale Prelude in A minor, played here with a devotional touch, the net result being a sound that can feel more Romantic than Baroque in nature. The final two tracks, 34 and 35 (whew!), are the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, with Vikingur playing the former very expressively, not at all mechanically, and the latter with sprightly energy that weaves together the melodic lines of this prototypical Bach fugue.
That might sound like something of a crazy salad, but the disc provides a garden of delight. The composition of opening piece, "For Johann," has been credited in some reviews to Olafsson himself, but I have it straight from the pianist that it is actually written by Badzura (but based on Bach), and was in fact recorded in Badzura's home. There are some mild electronic sounds, and the piano sound at times sounds slightly amplified, but the overall mood is wistful, a bit melancholy, with an overall sense of reverence. It truly is a fitting farewell to the late composer Johann Johannsson as well as a respectful tip of the cap to Johann Sebastian Bach. The second track, Sigurðsson's rework of BWV 855a, amps up the electronics – my notes remark, "very Bach but very electronic!" The third track, Prelude in G Major once again attributed to Bach/Badzura, returns to the overall mood of the opening track, with some subtle electronic ambient noises in the background and the piano being given a deeply resonant tone. The tempo slows toward the end, creating a mood of quiet reflection. The fourth cut, Above and Below, B minor, credited to Bach/Gregson, brings out more synth tones, an echoey piano, and eventually a melodic cello, morphing into a kind of cello sonata as the piece goes on.
As you might guess from the listing of the tracks and the excerpt from the program notes, Reworks continues along its eclectic way while remaining faithful to its roots in Bach. Track 7, Ryuichi Sakamoto's rework of BWV 974, perhaps the most removed from the sonic landscape Bach, with its big washes of synthesized sounds – moody, but pleasant, wistful and dreamlike. Track 10, "Bach und Zumutungen," credited to Bach/Roedelius/Rabitsch, introduces bell-like tones, a muffled, distant piano, with the mix becoming more cavernous as the piece goes on. That might sound like a strange description, but the overall sound and music are highly enjoyable. Track 11, "Kyriena," credited to Bach/Sverisson, features electronic and echoey piano sounds plus a background voice and some bowed acoustic bass.
The final cut, Kurtag's transcription for piano four-hands of the Sonatina from BWV 106, returns us to the sound of the acoustic piano, richly resonant in tone, sounding very much like straight Bach. Pianists Olafsson and Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir gently and lovingly slow the tempo down at the end, bringing the disc and the project to a peaceful and soul-satisfying conclusion.
That I have skipped commenting on some of tracks does not at all indicate I did not enjoy them. Both CDs are a delight from start to finish. With Works clocking in at more than 77 minutes and Reworks at more than 44, richly informative liner notes, and splendid recording quality throughout, this release is a must-have for Bach lovers and a splendid introduction to those who may be just getting into "classical" music.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: