There are over 75,000 notes in the Goldberg Variations. It is already a huge mental and intellectual challenge to listen to all of it in one sitting, and we, as listeners, can only imagine the monumentality of the actual undertaking of playing it – live and from memory, at that. The music is so complicated, interwoven and technically demanding that it is almost terrifying for the audience to witness what the pianist goes through while playing Bach’s crowning keyboard work. Losing control of the music seems like a very real and close possibility at all times and this brings a certain level of anxiety, which, at least for me, takes a little bit away from enjoying a fully immersive live performance, and generally forces me to listen to it in the safety of a recording instead. It is when I witness a nearly faultless recital, like Víkingur Ólafsson’s this evening, that I realize what I might be missing.

Vikingur Olafsson © Ari Magg
Vikingur Olafsson
© Ari Magg

Mr Ólafsson, who has recently signed with Deutsche Grammophon, has only a handful of recordings so far. Coming into tonight, I had only heard him on his Bach/Chopin and Glass Etudes recordings. His rendition of the Bach Partitas and Glass Etudes were clear, well-defined and rhythmically accurate, and his masterful Chopin Preludes suggested that he had the audacity to take on a large-scale work and present it coherently and consistently. These were already positive cues for me going in, but I must admit his performance of the Goldbergs exceeded my wildest expectations.

His Aria was as subdued as can be, without any ornamentations at all, which almost brought to mind Kempff’s weirdly unadorned recording. From here, he jumped on the first variation with a fury playing out the variation’s polonaise identity in full. Following the show of his extremes, Mr Ólafsson began to lay out a more pianistic approach in the following few variations. He very intermittently used the sustain pedal, and I suspect the una corda also – particularly in the delightful 5th. His playing mostly bordered on staccato, and it wasn’t until the 6th variation that the pianist started to insert some more tonal color. My only grievance during the opening variations would be a few missing beats in the dance movements. There was much excitement, but not enough dance elements in the 7th Gigue and the 4th Passepied.

Víkingur Ólafsson’s performance got significantly better from the Fughetta onwards. He decorated the movements with intricate and tasteful ornaments and millisecond perfect trills. The slow variations were full of color and mood with perfectly balanced voicing between the low and high registers. I was in awe of his Scarlatti-esque Toccata of the 14th variation as well as the anguish of his minor-key Canone. The 20th variation puts the pianists’ hand-crossing abilities to the ultimate test. Mr Ólafsson’s hands, in skillfully managing the crossover of the eighth notes against sixteenth notes in rapidly changing roles, were a true pleasure to watch. He went on to show his proficiency in immaculately arranging his voicing and dynamics in the somber 21st variation Canone. I don’t think I’ve heard bass notes (which should really carry the melody here) this clear since Weissenberg’s landmark recording.

As we were entering the final stretch, I was very curious how Mr Ólafsson would tackle the “black pearl” variation – the overall emotional center of the Goldbergs. To my pleasure, the pianist played the Adagio with utmost sincerity and solemnness. The audience, who were frequently fidgeting and sighing during the performance thus far, were totally still and silent during these seven-plus minutes. Víkingur Ólafsson left us completely mesmerized, holding out for each note to come.

From here on, the rest of the recital was a complete show of mastery and virtuosity. The pianist played the remaining four variations without a break, raising the intensity constantly. I actually felt my heart beat faster and faster until the final G major chord of the Quodlibet gave way to the familiar, serene Aria da Capo. Mr Ólafsson played the reprise just as he did at the beginning, without any ornaments, bringing the whole cycle, as he should, to a complete and very satisfying resolution.