The music of J.S. Bach travels well. It is some of the most perfect and highly-ordered music ever written. Yet it’s also some of the most durable and versatile. These 300-year-old notes continue to come alive in new and exciting ways. We got a sense of this earlier in the month with violinist Hilary Hahn’s fiery, romantic approach to solo Bach, reminiscent of the free and distinctive interpretations of twentieth century artists like Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein, Szeryng, Grumiaux, and Oistrakh.
Something similar emerges on a newly-released Bach album by Víkingur Ólafsson. The 34-year-old Icelandic pianist performs with a free-spirited conviction that has been compared to the Bach interpretations of Glenn Gould. The album includes excerpts from the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Sinfonia No. 15 in B minor, BWV 801, and the Aria variata, BWV 989, as well as arrangements by Rachmaninov and Busoni. Ólafsson adds to this tradition with his own transcription of the first aria from the solo cantata for alto “Widerstehe doch der Sünde.”
Here is the Fugue from Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904. The opening subject seems to be searching for a path forward, reaching higher, hesitating, and then falling back. A thrilling contrapuntal drama unfolds as this lonely, almost naive, line is joined by company. The way these voices converse and interact is what makes a great fugue so much fun. Bach would have improvised this kind of music on the spot, yet these voices spring to life with a sense of timeless inevitability. Almost halfway through, the initial fugue subject cuts off abruptly and is replaced with a new subject which takes the form of a mysterious falling chromatic line. Listen to the bold way the initial subject returns, and the two seemingly disparate ideas merge together in an awe-inspiring and celebratory climax.
- Johann Sebastian Bach: Víkingur Ólafsson Amazon
- Víkingur Ólafsson – Johann Sebastian Bach (Album Trailer)