Víkingur Ólafsson: five Bach recordings that changed my life
In an exclusive playlist, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson presents a selection of recordings of music by Bach that have changed his life – five by great pianists, plus a bonus choice featuring one of today's most influential conductors.Read more…
- Bach•Cantata 'Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben' BWV 147: Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Arr. for Piano)•
- Bach•Sinfonias BWV 787-801•Sinfonia No. 2 in C minor BWV 788
- Bach•Partita for Harpsichord No. 2 in C minor BWV 826•VI. Capriccio
- Bach•Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), Book I BWV 846-869•BWV 849 • Prelude No. 4 in C sharp minor
- Bach•Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), Book I BWV 846-869•BWV 849 • Fugue No. 4 in C sharp minor
- Bach•Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), Book I BWV 846-869: Prelude No. 10a in E minor (Arr. A. Siloti) "Stanza"•Half note = 50
- Bach•Matthäus-Passion (St. Matthew Passion) BWV 244•Part II • No. 39 Aria 'Erbarme dich, mein Gott' (Alto)
"Jesus bleibet meine Freude" from Cantata 'Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben' BWV 147 (arr. Myra Hess) – Dinu Lipatti
I got Lipatti’s last recording when I was quite young, maybe 12 or 13 years old, and I absorbed it completely. It was not only the way he played, but the story too: he repeated almost everything he recorded in the studio here in his last recital in Besançon shortly afterwards, which was only a few weeks before his death, aged just 33. I kept listening to it through that lens, imagining that he knew that these would be the last times he played, when he was still so young – younger than I am today. He plays like an angel already, and he’s been my sort of angel ever since – the angel of all pianists, in a way. This recording of "Jesu, joy of man’s desiring" captures that angelic mood, and it shows everything Lipatti could do with a surface that seems so natural and simple.
Sinfonia in C minor BWV 788, No. 2 – Glenn Gould
My second track represents something I’m really fascinated by: Glenn Gould’s concert recordings. People often ask, "What’s your favourite Gould Goldberg?" They mean the '55 or the '81, but my answer is usually, "Oh, the '59 from Salzburg!" What he achieved in those few years of touring is quite remarkable. But here I’ve chosen as shorter piece, the Sinfonia in C minor, which brings out the romantic in him. That’s not to say there’s anything exaggerated or sentimental, rather a sense of freedom and spontaneity that few have equaled in Bach. There’s the extraordinary fingerwork, even in the simpler pieces, and the incredible refinement and sense of proportion. And in these live recordings there is a sense of warmth and generosity that you don’t always get from him in the studio.
Capriccio from Partita No. 2 C minor – Martha Argerich
Martha Argerich shares with Gould this incredible attitude to Bach. I must have been 14 or 15 when I heard Argerich’s Bach album on DG and I remember thinking: "Wow, you can actually play Bach with this sort of attitude." And she plays this Capriccio, the last movement of the C minor Partita, with this modern attitude – off-beat, almost jazz-like. It’s just such a breath of fresh air. Of course, technically she might well be the greatest pianist in the last 50 years or so. For me she is the greatest living pianist, and this Bach recording shows what an extraordinarily serious musician she is too, on top of all that magical flair she has in her fingers.
Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I – Edwin Fischer
With Edwin Fischer we go back in time. Growing up in Iceland in the 1990s, there weren't that many concerts so almost all of my early musical exposure came from recordings and I listened to lots of people from the so-called Golden Age, whatever that means. As soon as I heard this Fischer recording of the C sharp minor Prelude and Fugue, though, I felt something special really clicked in me, and it's something I tried to write about in the liner notes for my own Bach recording. When I heard this, the abstract became sensual, and I realized that Bach was the greatest poet of all time. And that's the magic of it.
Prelude in E minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (Arr. A. Siloti) – Emil Gilels
I'm not afraid to say that Emil Gilels absolutely inspired me when I recorded this Bach-Siloti Prelude for my album. What Gilels taught me was this kind of sustained singing quality of piano playing. He has this tone which he pushes to the limit here, but without it ever getting harsh. I think he played the same way whether projecting to the last seat in the hall for a concert or for a microphone a metre away. I don't think he cared and here you really get a sense of the feeling of the space in this performance – from his 'Seattle Recital'. It's a simple piece in a way – a beautiful chord progression that essentially repeats – but at that repeat he really shows the amazing coloristic possibilities he had at his disposal.
Bonus: "Erbarme Dich" from St. Matthew Passion – Michael Chance, English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner
For my bonus track I'll give you a break from the piano, but not from Bach. I consider John Eliot Gardiner one of the greatest English musicians of all time – and that includes all the composers. I've never met him, but he has taught me so much through his work. Regardless of whether you agree with his approach in principle, there's such a strong mind, such a strong conviction, such a strong concept that I'm more or less always convinced –he convinces you, and that's what a great performer does. I could have chosen so many recordings of "Erbarme Dich", but this one with Michael Chance, a counter-tenor, still kills me.