Bach: Works and Reworks (CD Review)

Vikingur Olafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 4837769.

By Karl W. Nehring

CD 1:
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.

CD 2:
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.

Vikingur Olafsson
The liner notes explain that because Vikingur had been "particularly taken with Alexander Siloti's transcription of the Prelude, BWV 855a from the Well-Tempered Clavier, the pianist invited some of today's most innovative composers to reimagine that same prelude for Bach Reworks. Peter Gregson, Ben Frost, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Sküli Sverrisson, and Valgeir Sigurðsson have all created new versions based on Olafsson's original. Ryuichi Sakamoto has taken a different path, opting instead to rework a movement from Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. The album also includes two transcriptions taken from Bach cantatas, one by György Kurtäg, the other by Olafsson, as well as pieces freely inspired by Bach's music, one of which substitutes the piano line with cello writing."

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.

KWN

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa