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Many of us have a tendency to think of Johann Sebastian Bach mostly in the colossal sense. We know him as the fifth evangelist, the ultimate musical mathematician, and the architect behind glorious cathedrals of sound no less impressive than their counterparts of stone, wood and stained glass. It is easy to forget that the man behind the St Matthew Passion and Goldberg Variations also excelled at telling great stories in just a minute or two of music.

In his smaller keyboard works, like the ones I chose to record for my new album, many less ubiquitous facets of Bach’s complex character are on display: these works reveal his sense of humour, his rhetorical flair and penchant for provocation, in addition to his philosophical depth and spiritual exaltation. They display emotions ranging from mischievous lightheartedness to grief, rage and exasperation. And through them, we encounter not only Bach the composer, but also Bach the keyboard virtuoso, Bach the master of improvisation, and Bach the meticulous teacher. These works often feel like a rare and valuable encounter with the human side of the musical colossus. By all accounts, Bach’s command of the keyboard was masterful, unrivalled in his day. The keyboard instruments were his livelihood for decades, but also his playground. Even though he revised and refined the keyboard works to the point of perfection, many do retain a certain spontaneity of thought, an improvisatory joy – some invaluable clues as to how Bach thought about music.

But not everything is gained from getting closer to the person behind the music. In fact, another firm belief of mine is that great art always transcends the artist, and the music of Bach is no exception. I believe Bach’s music is greater than any individual, any generation, any school of thought. Indeed, Bach’s music is greater than Bach himself. Or, to quote what the great Hungarian-American pianist and pedagogue György Sebők said to me once, when I was in my early teens and starting to find my own way in Bach’s music: ‘Bach is a free country.’ Sebők knew a thing or two about freedom and the lack thereof, and his words have stayed with me ever since.

The moment you open a score of Bach’s music, the well-known paradox immediately reveals itself: The music is incredibly rich and strikingly sparse at the same time. The musical structures are very detailed, but there are hardly any indications as to how you should go about shaping them in performance. Every element is up for debate: tempi, dynamics, proportions, articulation – the list goes on. We performers must weigh our knowledge of period style against our individual and inescapably contemporary sensibility; our faithfulness to what we believe to have been the composer’s intention against our freedom to discover possibilities in the music that the composer could never have foreseen – some of them made available by the modern instrument. There is no single, correct solution. This is a strangely liberating realisation: with one of the greatest creators in music history, it is simply unavoidable for the aspiring performer to become something of a co-creator. For this reason, I love to hear how other people perform Bach’s works. It seems to reveal in a particularly clear way how they listen to and think about music – not just Bach’s music, but all music.

Through its inherent openness, Bach’s keyboard music has become something of a musical mirror for different generations of pianists in the modern age, clearly reflecting the tastes and values of each period. While some works go in and out of vogue, others enjoy a stable popularity but undergo radical changes in the way they are understood and interpreted. Bach today generally sounds quite different from Bach 30 years ago, and still more different from Bach 50 years ago. In that sense his music is contemporary rather than classical. It has the potential to feel more or less as new today as it did 300 years ago. Like the works of Shakespeare, it is ‘not of an age, but for all time’.

In deciding what to record on this album, also I found myself pondering the meaning of what is original and what is borrowed – copied, and sometimes augmented, reworked, transformed. I decided to include quite a few transcriptions of Bach’s works in addition to original versions. Here, too, each generation has something to say. There are Busoni and Stradal transcriptions that emphasise lush, organ-like sonorities on the piano, while Rachmaninov brought in golden-age pianism and flirted with jazzy elements in his transcription. Siloti (Rachmaninov’s teacher) explored sound and texture in his, while Kempfftested the technical limits of the performer. I made my new transcription of the aria from Cantata 54, ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’, to see where I would get with one of my favourite cantatas on the piano. The album also contains an example of Bach’s own transcriptions: his wonderful keyboard arrangement of Marcello’s oboe concerto. For Bach, as for so many others, copying paved the way for novelty.

Bach frequently borrowed from himself as well, using the same or very similar motifs in different, sometimes contrasting works. In many ways, I have put together this album by ear – allowing myself sometimes to highlight unexpected thematic familiarities and connections. One example of a family resemblance is the very first measure of the album, the playful and carefree G major Prelude, which has the same motif as the opening measure of the last work on the album, the tragic and existential A minor Fantasia and Fugue. The discerning listener will no doubt spot many other links, echoes and parallels.

Víkingur Ólafsson Read the full review on Agora Classica


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