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GRAMOPHONE ( 11 / 2018)
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DG 4835022

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Reviewer: Harriet Smith

Not exactly being a fan of Philip Glass’s music, this is the first time I’ve encountered Víkingur Ólafsson on disc, though I was very taken with his Bach in concert last year. That impression is deepened by this disc: here is an artist who palpably adores and reveres JSB in equal measure, and makes sense of a programme that could have sounded bitty – 35 tracks, with the biggest work being the youthful Aria variata (alla maniera italiana).

In terms of pianistic lineage, Ólafsson combines the fantasy of Maria João Pires and Martha Argerich with the contrapuntal élan of Piotr Anderszewski. But he is very much his own man, mixing original Bach with transcriptions that range from Stradal, Busoni and Rachmaninov via Kempff to the present day, with Ólafsson’s own rethinking of the luscious aria from the solo alto Cantata No 54, ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’, in which he channels the great transcribers of old, using left-hand octaves to give it a grounded feeling, and choosing a measured tempo more akin to Alfred Deller than Andreas Scholl.

Ólafsson’s notes tell of his discovery of Bach pianists as different as Edwin Fischer, Rosalyn Tureck, Dinu Lipatti, Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich. From this, he has found his own way with Bach – highly individual but never mannered. His account of Kempff’s transcription of the chorale prelude Nun freut euch is less anchored by the chorale tune itself and more flighty in effect than Kempff’s own performances (Eloquence). I like the way that Ólafsson alternates original Bach with the transcriptions, so that Stradal’s take on the middle movement of Bach’s Fourth Organ Sonata (given here with generous use of sustaining pedal to create a poetic ambience) is followed by a refreshingly airborne account of the D major Prelude from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, while its Fugue melds clarity with nobility. After this comes the Busoni version of another chorale prelude, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, which unfolds more naturally than in Demidenko’s hands (Hyperion). We then get another dash of cold water in the C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1. The Prelude is judged to perfection, combining energy and brilliance, the Fugue a model of crisp detail.

And so it continues: almost as if Ólafsson is offering different angles on the statue of Bach that he keeps by his piano – one that ‘looks like wisdom incarnate, stern-faced and majestic in its wig’. He brings considerable character to the theme of the Aria variata, tending to choose faster tempos than Angela Hewitt (Hyperion, 10/04), to thrilling effect in Variations 2, 7 and 9, while Var 6 has a limpid beauty. Even an outwardly simple piece such as the A major Invention, BWV783, is full of interest, the energy infectiously joyous, the trills razor-sharp.

Other highlights include the Bach/ Rachamninov Gavotte from the E major Violin Partita, which here has an engaging nonchalance, and the Siloti reworking of the E minor Prelude from Book 1 of the WTC, a model of restraint in which Ólafsson allows the music’s beauty to shine through. If the first movement of the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor (Bach’s arrangement of Marcello’s D minor Oboe Concerto) is almost too punchy in its ebullience, the famous Adagio is suitably haloed and the finale fizzes. He ends his journey with the A minor Fantasia and Fugue, BWV904, which again is unerring in its sense of build, the closing bars of the Fugue making a fittingly grandiose conclusion to the disc.

DG’s engineers have done this remarkable musician proud. I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

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