On Easter Sunday, Icelandic Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson Plays Evangelist for Bach

By Truman C. Wang

Photo credit: Ari Magg

Photo credit: Ari Magg

Another health setback forced pianist Murray Perahia to cancel his Southern California engagements last week.  Filling in for him at the Disney Hall on Sunday, April 21, was a relatively unknown pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson, who was part of last season’s Reykjavik festival and has made a name for himself in his native Iceland playing J.S. Bach and Philip Glass, two unlikely classical music bedfellows.

As it so happens, it was Easter Sunday, and the program was appropriately solemn with a seriousness of purpose.  The first half of the recital was dotted with eclectic pieces by J.S. Bach, from the seriously substantial, fifteen-minute, Aria Variata alla maniera Italiana (BWV 989), to the lighthearted three-minute Gavotte, from Violin Partita No. 3 in E (BWV 1006) in the Rachmaninoff transcription.  In between, we heard Preludes, Fugues, Fantasias by Bach as well as Romantic transcriptions that made quite an impression on Mr. Ólafsson’s protean modern Steinway grand.

While one missed the ailing Perahia – something of a Bach specialist himself, who recorded the Goldberg Variations twenty years ago that elicited superlatives from critics – Mr. Ólafsson can unabashedly stand on his own considerable merits.   He is an interpreter with a rare instinct for living rhythms, pulses and inflections, free in his phrasing of the slow melodies – with freedoms that do no violence to, but enhance, the natural flow of the music – and buoyant in fast numbers.  In his playing, one sensed an underlying current of romantic passion that’s in all of Bach’s music, but which fully blossomed in the transcriptions.   One also appreciated his wonderful piano tone – rich but not fierce, full in timber but not cluttered, distinct but not dry.

The second half of the recital was devoted to the music of Philip Glass, including his six Etudes.  In mood and style, they eerily resemble Bach.  The Etude No. 5, for example, has the minimalist, contemplative character of the Bach/Silotti Prelude in B minor BWV 855a.  Mr. Ólafsson showed the same virtuosity, athleticism and grace in the Glass works as he did in the Bach.  

The two Bach encores – Chorale Prelude “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”, BWV 639 (trans. Busoni) and Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847 (from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, No. 2) – took us back a full circle of this highly enlightening, enriching musical journey that spanned two centuries.  At age 35, Víkingur Ólafsson is a marvelous pianist and an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.