Víkingur Ólafsson plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Carnegie Hall

Aria with Thirty Variations, BWV988

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 7 February, 2024
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

For his main stage Carnegie Hall debut, Víkingur Ólafsson delivered a dazzling interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, midway through his season-long tour, performing the piece in 88 venues across six continents.

As the audience’s welcoming applause abated, he calmly sat down and began a 75-minute, faultless account – from memory – of the labyrinthian work. The graceful opening aria, played straightforwardly, without excessive ornamentation, gave no hint of what was to follow. From there, Ólafsson launched into a high-speed, blissfully lyrical, strikingly transparent reading of the first variation, setting the mood for the performance– one that radiated joy and commanded one’s total attention. What followed this initial show of contrasts was a spectacular display of virtuosity. The performance became better and better – and more intense – as it moved forward, sometimes not pausing at all. 

Variation V, the first of the several lively two-part movements involving hand-crossing – one hand repeatedly moving back and forth between low and high registers while the other played in the middle of the keyboard – was cheerfully elegant. VI flew by in a fabulous display of technical control. In IX, where the graceful bass line is uncommonly active, each line managed to maintain a distinct character. Variation XV was highlighted by flawless attention to complex counterpoint.

Ólafsson colored the opening of XVI, a grand French overture, with a wonderfully dignified pomp-and-circumstance character, but his interpretation was most satisfying in the fast fugue-like contrapuntal section that follows. The skittish successor, a bravura two-part toccata, exhibited some impressively robust runs. In the lilting XVIII, the pianist maintained a delicate touch while eliciting an appealing array of tone colors. The minor mode XXV, which Wanda Landowska described as ‘the black pearl’, was especially moving. The final Variation, the ‘Quodlibet’, a complex but lighthearted medley of German folk tunes, ended on a strong and sunny note. The reprise of the aria was rendered exactly as at the beginning, bringing this traversal to a very satisfying conclusion.

Ólafsson interrupted the ovation to thank us and say how thrilled he was to be making his ‘middle-aged debut’ in the hall where he spent so many evenings in the ten-dollar seats during his student years.

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