A live performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is always an event, and not just on account of the sheer quantity of notes. The composer famously left no instructions as to how the music should be played, allowing harpsichordists or pianists a great deal of interpretative latitude. And for all a performance might be planned out in advance, you forget that Bach was the greatest improvisor of his time at your peril. If that implies a necessary element of going with the flow, so be it.
Víkingur Ólafsson’s new recording of the work (released 6 October) is characteristically crisp, clean and crystalline but none of that prepared me for his Festival Hall performance. Those qualities were present in spades, but there was an added something. Call it the magic of theatre or the tangible engagement of an intensely listening audience, but this was a reading that added up to considerably more than the sum of its 32 parts.
The Icelandic pianist was a hypnotic presence at the keyboard, a rangy giant whose head bent so low at times his nose nearly brushed the keys. His poetic body language wasn’t just engaging to watch, it carved up time, placing each variation within a dramatic framework. Listeners might be held back in thrilling anticipation one moment or tumbled headlong into the maelstrom of the following variation the next. Where a recording studio can pour cold water on spontaneity, in the heat of the moment Ólafsson was breathtakingly organic.
Original touches were legion, like the boastful panache of the fugal tenth variation, the sense of private communion in the pivotal 13th, and the wistful air of loneliness he found in the canon on the fifth that rounds off the first half. The second half was an emotional switchback, from the one hand dispatching racing scales while the other danced a saraband in the 26th variation, to the magical mystery tour of the spun-out canon on the seventh. But it was the heady joy as he sensed the finish line and the head-tossing relish as he plunged into the quodlibet that earned him the kind of whooping ovation usually reserved for rock stars.