Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson’s relentless PR-machine You Tube teasers—one Goldberg variation at a time with commentary—left me wondering whether he could equal expectations for his Celebrity Series recital on Saturday night. And then there were the frightfully silly photos in his CD booklet. I knew he was giving 88 concerts on 6 continents of this one piece this year, as well as releasing an extremely hyped CD, which took me almost 2 months to receive…plus he had just gotten a rave review in New York Times. Would he prove equal to expectations he raised averred, “Playing this whole piece 88 times feels almost like a religious pilgrimage, or a conceptual work of art … Bach is not one thing; he’s everything at the same time.”
Score in hand, in a sold-out Jordan Hall, awaiting this much-heralded Icelandic interpreter’s take on J.S. Bach’s mega-hit, and knowing this work from a multitude of recordings, I was astonished to be swept away twice. Entering the hall, I was the clumsy lady who fell on the slanted and slippery floor in Row N; then Olafsson’s account seemingly levitated me.
Ólafsson began the famous sarabande-styled “Aria,” which he repeated, with tenderness, before launching with supersonic speed into its 30 variations. I had wondered how much of the clarity of his recording was just a result of masterful miking, but astonishingly, in the live moments he equaled the focus and articulation throughout; his left-hand and inner- voices possessed personalities and a collection of distinct co-equal voices. In the minor key variations, he devastated me with emotional complexity. On the modern Steinway it felt both naturally organic and bewitching.
For those who feel compelled to make comparisons, one should first put other harpsichord or pianists out of one’s mind. (Call it a willing suspension of comparisons). Yes, we’ve all heard Glenn Gould’s two recordings, and I have seriously admired recordings (and performances) of Sergey Schepkin, Lars Vogt, Pavel Kalishnikov, and many others. But number-by-number, Ólafsson constructed memories.
The aria had us rather relaxed, so it was a pleasant shock when he launched with warp speed into the first variation. Notes and multiple hand crossings would seem acrobatically graceful. Unexpected thrills astonished us throughout: in dynamics, voicings, tempi one sensed he was really enjoying his rapt audience. The fast variations flew by, while the few slow ones possessed otherworldly and almost unearthly and haunting qualities. He had a beautiful touch, and, of course, he was working the acoustically superb Jordan Hall. (Although at the end, he told a story about dreaming his piano slid off into the audience and was spooked the hall’s floors slanted floors).
You would think, since the alleged end of Covid, that this reviewer would stop being astounded at the difference that hearing live music makes, but here I was, stupefied once again. For 80 minutes revelations followed discoveries, and my love affair with the Goldbergs flared anew.