Icelandic pianist VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON’s fresh approach to Bach’s classics has won him rave reviews and a record of the year award. But what made him decide to mix the baroque and electronic? IMOGEN TILDEN finds out…
“We’re in a golden age for classical music,” says Víkingur Ólafsson. Spend time in the 35-year-old’s musical company and you might well agree. His album, Bach, has just been named recording of the year in the BBC Music Magazine awards – no surprise given the five-star raves it received on its release in September. ‘Ravishing … a miracle of delicate control’, ‘Ólafsson’s Bach will quench your thirst’, ‘infectiously joyous energy… he is a remarkable musician’ said the critics. This collection of thirty five short pieces features original Bach works for keyboard interspersed with a variety of transcriptions that, from Stradal to Ólafsson himself via Kempff, Busoni, and Rachmaninov, traverse the last 150 years of Bach readings. In a world hardly short of Bach recordings, his does feel genuinely revelatory. I’ve been listening to it daily for six months, and have pressed copies into the hands of friends and family with evangelistic zeal. So how has Ólafsson found such a fresh and serene approach?
The album has been many years in the making, Ólafsson tells me. Following six years at New York’s prestigious performing arts conservatory Juilliard, the Icelandic-born pianist moved to Oxford where his wife was studying. “We lived in a hideous building off Gloucester Green – where the bus station is,” he smiles. “Those three years were a time to find my own voice, and become my own teacher. It was then that I really started to play, and listen to, and think about Bach. Bach became my teacher.” And yet it is in the very lack of instruction in Bach’s music – the composer left few dynamic, tempo indications, or phrasing indications on his scores – that Ólafsson found space and inspiration. “Bach’s music is just pure structure. You have to fill it with colour and make sure that the proportions are right,” he says. Piano students world over labour over Bach from an early age, his keyboard works invaluable in teaching even fingering, good rhythm, phrasing, articulation. But, Ólafsson’ admits, “at a certain point you have to make a transition and understand that he was arguably the greatest poet of music history”. He references the famous portrait of the composer in his sixties: jowly, be-wigged and formally dressed. “He’s a big man,” Ólafsson says, slightly overweight, with a serious look. If I compare it to how I experience the music, it feels to me a very inaccurate portrait … He doesn’t feel very approachable, or even likeable, and he certainly doesn’t seem the spontaneous and extraordinarily creative genius his works prove.”
Does this sense of Bach, formal and unapproachable, obscure his music? Ólafsson thinks so. “I wanted to get away from the tendency I have to think of Bach in colossal terms, whose epic works are these huge cathedrals of sound.” The completist approach – presenting the forty eight Preludes and Fugues, or all the Two- and Three-Part Inventions together as if one complete piece – is a twentieth-century fetish, he thinks. “I don’t think Bach wrote them to be performed as a set. Today, it’s ridiculous – it’s almost as if you have to play them as a set otherwise you’re not a ‘serious’ musician. I don’t like to listen to music in this way. When you listen to the Sinfonias, say, on their own, they become different pieces. Short stories rather than parts of an epic novel.”
And so the album took shape as Ólafsson sat amid the distinctly non-dreaming spires of Gloucester Green. He immersed himself in great Bach interpreters of the past and present – among the many he names whose differing approaches brought inspiration and insights are Edwin Fischer, Glenn Gould, Dinu Lipatti, Martha Argerich, Jacques Loussier and Murray Perahia, and he found the poetry, the provocations and the spontaneity of Bach’s music. The architecture of the album, no piece longer than five and a half minutes, a handful under a minute, feels aerated and accessible, more akin to a pop album.
“I started thinking about how I listen to music,” Ólafsson says. “I listen to it in the concert hall in a very different way to listening to it at home on headphones or on speaker while I’m cooking or commuting or whatever. It’s not designed to be listened to in one go, although if you do, you might spot underlying threads, motifs and echoes.”
This month’s Reworks album pushes rethinking Bach to an even more contemporary space, blending Ólafsson’s award-winning recordings with electronic music. Musicians and composers including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ben Frost, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Hildur Guðnadóttir have contributed remixes to the album, released last week, hipster style, on vinyl as well as digital. Much of the treated music shimmers and glints, new shapes appear, others disintegrate in a fog, or, with an almost imperceptible bass ticking like a heartbeat, gain fragility and poignancy. But is there a danger, as with any crossover-style project that ‘updates’ classical music, that we lose sight of Bach?
“Yes … He is the easiest composer to get wrong, because everything is so open,” says Ólfasson. “I know some people hate the idea of doing electronic things with Bach. But he himself was a great experimenter. I wanted to show that his music is there to open windows. Everyone has to find their own Bach.”
VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON’s album Bach is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.
IMOGEN TILDEN is an Arts writer at The Guardian.
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