Vikingur Olafsson (Foto: Alberto Venzago)
Víkingur Ólafsson

One year, one work

This season, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has dedicated himself entirely to Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variations".

Franziska Gallusser

Glenn Gould, András Schiff, Lang Lang – the list of renowned pianists who have dared to record Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variations" is long. The work has been recorded well over 100 times. However, this does not mean that it is not worth listening to new interpretations again and again, some of which could not be more different.

The Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson once explained in a CD booklet text why Bach's works continue to cast a spell over performers to this day: "Due to its fundamental openness, Bach's piano music has in a sense become a musical mirror for different generations of pianists in modern times, clearly reflecting the tastes and values of each era. While the popularity of some works changes with fashion, others always remain in vogue, but are subject to radical changes in their conception and interpretation. The Bach of today generally sounds very different from the Bach of 30 years ago or even 50 years ago. In this sense, his music is more contemporary than classical. It has the potential to seem more or less as new today as it did 300 years ago." It is clear from his words that the pianist, who the New York Times once called the "Icelandic Glenn Gould", is passionate about Johann Sebastian Bach.

"Bach is the musical love of my life"

Víkingur Ólafsson was influenced by the music of the former Thomaskantor from an early age. His mother, also a pianist who studied in Berlin, probably played a decisive role in this. Today, the multi-award-winning exceptional artist is recognised as a master interpreter of Bach's piano works. It is said that he owes his contract with Deutsche Grammophon to an evening on which he played Bach's "Goldberg Variations" in Iceland.

"The Goldberg Variations offer unusually virtuosic pianistic music, examples of ingenious use of counterpoint and countless moments of sublime poetry, abstract contemplation and deep emotion – all in the immaculately crafted architecture of formal perfection."

Víkingur Ólafsson on the "Goldberg Variations" by Bach

This was several years ago. His first recording for the label was released in 2017 and, unusually, he chose piano etudes by Philip Glass for his debut album. A year later, his second album was released, which – naturally – contained exclusively works by Bach. This was named "Album of the Year" by BBC Music Magazine and won an Opus Klassik in the "Solo Recording" category. As Víkingur Ólafsson himself says, the music of the Baroque master is the elixir of life. He says: "Bach is the musical love of my life. I can't spend more than a few days without playing his works. For me, Bach's music doesn't belong in a bygone era, but in the here and now."

88 concerts on six continents

In October 2023, Víkingur Ólafsson's latest solo album was released by Deutsche Grammophon: a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. for 25 years he has "dreamed of recording this work", he says – now he has dared to do it. He is dedicating the current season on a world tour entirely to the variations. He will perform them in 88 concerts on six continents. In his "Year with Bach", he is doing without the usual orchestral and solo concerts.

You might think that could get boring in the long run. But Víkingur Ólafsson is convinced that Bach is "the greatest artist of all time, including Shakespeare and Michelangelo". Why? "Because his scores contain no instructions on the tempo or character of the pieces, you have to do everything yourself, you become a kind of co-composer. Bach reveals who you are." The pianist embarks on a kind of "pilgrimage" to the music – and to himself. The audience can join him on this journey in New York's Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, the Philharmonie de Paris, the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Sydney Opera House, the Sala São Paulo, the Shanghai Symphony Hall and many other venues. And yes, on 19 April 2024 also at the Tonhalle Zurich.

Bach's "Goldberg Variations": From an aid to falling asleep to a bravura piece

"Aria mit verschiedenen Veraenderungen vors Clavizimbal mit 2 Manualen Den Liebhabern zur Gemüths-Ergetzung verfertiget": this is the original title of Bach's "Goldberg Variations", which appeared in print in 1741. The composition was later given the title we know today. It goes back to a legend that was spread by the first Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel at the beginning of the 19th century. According to this legend, there was a Russian envoy at the Dresden court, Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk. He had a personal harpsichordist named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. As the envoy suffered from sleep problems, Bach allegedly wrote his variations so that Goldberg could play them for him.

The work comprises 30 variations in different forms, movement types and genres on a musical theme (the "Aria", which may not have been written by Bach). The variations differ greatly in character – even though they are (almost) all in the same key and built over the same bass line. Today, the "Goldberg Variations" are among the most iconic piano works in music history.

Translated with

April 2024
Fri 19. Apr

Piano Recital: Vikingur Olafsson

Víkingur Ólafsson Klavier Bach
published: 08.04.2024