J. S. Bach: Goldberg Variations

J. S. Bach: Goldberg Variations

For many musicians, recording major works by Bach feels like a rite of passage—the cello suites, the “48,” the solo works for violin. They’re often approached as Everests to be tackled only when an artist feels right, when a lifetime of learning can be distilled into that landmark album. Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson senses that his time has come for Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I'm turning 40 in February 2024, which means that I’ve played the Goldbergs publicly for 10 years,” he tells Apple Music Classical. “It doesn’t seem that high of an age, but now I read the piece differently from when I was 30. “To me,” he continues, “the Goldbergs are like an encyclopaedia about how you can dream on a keyboard. It’s like a letter in a bottle that Bach floated on the Atlantic Ocean in the year of 1741, hoping to find an audience. And amazingly, it has.” It’s tempting to suggest that Ólafsson’s recording of the Goldberg Variations marks a turning point in his recording career. After all, his previous albums for Deutsche Grammophon have all featured carefully curated, highly original recital programs (Mozart & Contemporaries and From Afar to name just two). No stand-alone major works among them. But Ólafsson doesn’t just see the Goldberg Variations as one of Bach’s greatest single works for keyboard, but also as the ultimate program: a series of variations with its own story, its own pathway. And so we start at the beginning, with what Ólafsson calls the “aria of all arias—one of the most beautiful keyboard pieces ever written and an ode to birth.” What follows are 30 variations, each built on the same simple harmonic structure of that “Aria.” “Bach is showing us that, in the basic DNA of this aria, you can find unlimited expression,” he says. “The genome is, in a way, the beauty of life, and I feel that this piece is one of the most biological creations in classical music.” Life stretches out across the Goldbergs. The first 14 variations, he explains, are in the same calm, restful-sounding key as the “Aria” itself—G major. “You could easily make a metaphor from them of a happy childhood,” says Ólafsson, “where you don’t have to struggle.” At Variation 15, everything changes. The mood darkens, the tempo slows. “Nothing prepares you for it. It turns things upside down and ends in this incredibly open-ended way with the open fifth, each note as far apart as you can imagine on that keyboard of that day, on a low G and the high D.” Ólafsson paints a picture of rebirth with Variation 16, written in the style of a French overture—almost operatic in its exuberance. “You bounce back, and you have, again, these incredible joyous variations and canons, all in G major.” The pattern of deep tragedy followed by unalloyed joy is repeated from Variation 21 and again from Variation 25 before the homecoming at Variation 30. This last Variation is where Bach welcomes the hero with a “quodlibet”: two traditional folksongs combined, a keyboard recreation of what was often sung at private Bach family entertainments. And then we return to the “Aria.” The odyssey is complete. “The interesting thing about the ‘Aria’ is that the notes are the same, but not the same,” says Ólafsson. “Everything’s completely changed. And I think, when you hear it again after 75 minutes, you really feel like Bach has given you a chance to experience something close to the end of life. “Whenever I play the final ‘Aria,’ whether in the studio or in performance, something breaks in me. I don’t want it to end. It’s one of those things where you have a fear of the last chord and the silence that follows it.” It’s easy, in fact, to forget the important part that silence plays throughout the Goldberg Variations, dictating how each Variation runs into the next, creating instant segues or larger dramatic pauses. “I had so much fun deciding on which microsecond each variation would start after the previous one,” says Ólafsson. It’s crucial that any performance avoids routine—simply playing one variation after another. “You never want that to be the feeling,” he says. “It should never be business as usual.” So how should we listen to Bach’s Goldberg Variations? “Just as the performer has to find his or her Goldbergs, so the audience has to, too.” Ólafsson advocates plunging in, headfirst. “The best thing you can do,” he explains, “is to listen to them first thing in the morning, every day for a month. And then see where you are on the first day of the next month. You will be in a different place, and you'll feel differently about this piece. “I can promise you that you’ll have a lot of new ideas—and a lot of love for this music.”

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