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[Herald Interview] Pianist Vikingur Olafsson's dedicated love of Bach's 'Goldberg Variations'

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Dec. 15, 2023 - 14:24

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Vikingur Olafsson speaks during a press conference held at Geoam Art Hall, in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, on Thursday. (Universal Music) Vikingur Olafsson speaks during a press conference held at Geoam Art Hall, in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, on Thursday. (Universal Music)

Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson passionately confessed his deep affection for Johann Sebastian Bach and the “Goldberg Variations.”

"I have been dreaming about recording the Goldberg Variations for 25 years, so most of my life,” said the 39-year-old musician during a press conference held at Geoam Art Hall in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, on Thursday.

Reflecting on the moment he first encountered the piece through pianist Glenn Gould's performance at the age of 14, Olafsson recalled, "I think my 14-year-old brain exploded a little bit with so many sensations."

Olafsson’s teachers used Bach as a practice tool to control dynamics such as rhythm, tone, pedaling and staccato. But when he heard Gould’s performance, he realized that Bach was not only serious but “everything at the same time.”

“He is also very much an entertainer. He's virtuosic, poetic, physical, metaphysical, spiritual, down-to-earth. And the Goldberg Variations show this better than any other pieces.”

In October, Olafsson released the studio album “Bach: Goldberg Variations” under Deutsche Grammophon. Since August, he has been on a world tour with the Goldberg Variations, performing across six continents.

Olafsson is in Korea as part of this world tour, set to perform at Seoul Art Center’s Concert Hall on Friday and Tongyeong Concert Hall, in South Gyeongsang Province, on Saturday.

"(To me) the Goldberg Variations are the greatest keyboard works of all time,” Olafsson said.

“I'm dedicating a whole season of only playing the Goldberg Variations. And it’s very interesting because I always discover something new about the music, about myself and about Bach's genius in creating something extraordinary from just the smallest material.”

The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, published in 1741, consists of an aria and set of 30 variations.

"It is like a solar system. We have an aria, the first piece of the Goldberg Variations, and then you have 30 different planets which revolve around the aria in 30 different variations. And I think each variation has to be like that -- a unique planet with its own logic.”

Vikingur Olafsson poses for a photo during a press conference held at Geoam Art Hall in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, on Thursday. (Universal Music) Vikingur Olafsson poses for a photo during a press conference held at Geoam Art Hall in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, on Thursday. (Universal Music)

Taking the leap as a professional pianist after finishing his studies at the Julliard School in 2008, Olafsson also used Bach as an instructive guide.

“Bach is the most important composer for me because he demands so much. When you play Bach, you have to be active in a very special way. You have to think like a composer.”

While doing so, it is important to find one’s own voice.

“It’s because the music is so maximal, but the instructions for how to play the music are so minimal. You have to almost become a co-creator with Bach -- defining the music with your taste, your perception and your character. It becomes a meeting between different performers and Bach, like a time travel," he said.

“Bach: Goldberg Variations” (Deutsche Grammophon) “Bach: Goldberg Variations” (Deutsche Grammophon)

Olafsson explained that since all the variations are exceptionally beautiful, he finds himself favoring different ones on different days.

"Choosing between the variations is like choosing between children. … But I really like Variation 13. It’s a very beautiful, simple, soft daydreaming variation like a butterfly. Also, I like Variation 25, which is a great tragic variation. It's one of the loneliest (pieces of) music Bach ever wrote and the most painful. I also like Variation 1 which is just the happiest, most brilliant piece.”

As someone with synesthesia, who associates pitches with different colors, Olafsson said he envisions the Goldberg Variations in red and orange shades -- which he associates with the pitch of G. But for the album cover, he opted for black and white.

“I believe every album cover should have a connection to the music or the content. And I wanted the Goldberg Variations’ cover to be simple, transparent and concrete like the music,” he said.

“I used a photo in black and white that is hard to put an exact date on. I feel the music is timeless, so I wanted that to be the message.”