Sometimes it is best to rid one’s ears of all memories when an entirely fresh way of playing a particular work comes along. Ever since Glenn Gould issued his famous recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955, many a pianist has set their ambition on reaching a definitive interpretation of this Baroque masterpiece. Not many have succeeded.

However, when a certain Icelandic pianist appears out of left field and totally reconceptualises the Goldberg Variations, it feels time to cleanse the record and start afresh. Víkingur Ólafsson has already built a considerable reputation with Bach, but this is the first time the now 40-year-old has appeared in Australia.

As he strides in and sits, business-like, at the Town Hall’s Steinway, you know it is going to be good – his air of intellectual cool already says that. Maybe we are in for a night of cerebral precision, one imagines. But the moment he touches the keys, it is time to banish any such prejudgments. Ólafsson is heartfelt and exquisitely lovely in the Aria that serves as the basis for this monumental set of variations.

This Aria sounds certainly distinctive in his hands: elegantly poised yet at the same time delicately energised as he flicks away its profusion of trills, turns and mordents. Already there is a swaying pulse that governs the music while setting it free. It is divine.

And he spares us of that obligatorily long appoggiatura almost every pianist feels is necessary to add at the end of its 33 bars. That appoggiatura is written into the original edition but bravo for being different. He separates out the bass notes cheekily in places as well. Ólafsson impresses with his wilful decision-making.

The first variation comes with great speed in a scintillating shower of notes. Clearly, this pianist is an athlete who excels in making the virtuosic sound exuberant and improvisatory. Arpeggios spray around excitedly yet remain under vice-like intellectual control. So we have just discovered something further about Ólafsson. He cultivates the brilliant style better than probably anyone else out there.

On occasion, he takes the liberties of a jazz player to get there. Suddenly, he will rip out dynamically with an unexpected burst of energy. Everything he does escapes predictability.

Some variations swing vexatiously and wildly in mood, but others join up in a seamless flow of energy. The effect is to build up a giant coalescing structure where other pianists stick to a bare sequential orderliness.

In the Sarabande-like Variation 13, he takes the tempo back and draws out its phrases with infinite tenderness. Likewise, he explores Variation 21’s chromatic strangeness with elongated introspective profundity. These two variations serve as emotional pillars in Ólafsson’s design.

One particular aspect about his technique warrants mention. He uses the sustain pedal extremely sparingly, and for a different purpose. He moves his right foot rapidly up and down to give extra resonance to individual notes, rather than for legato effect.

This was a most remarkable concert. At a later point, one audience member in the front row was showing signs of discomfort, and Ólafsson turned his eyes to her and in a low voice asked if she was okay – this while his finger work continued impeccably and without interruption.

Extraordinary. Surely nothing like this has happened before. The man’s compassion stunned everyone as much as his virtuosity.

There was, and could be, no encore. As he explained to the audience who had by now risen to their feet, Bach already supplies an encore in the return of the Aria at the end of this mighty work.

Another encore was to keep hearing this music spinning in one’s head well after Ólafsson’s mighty performance had ended. His all-surpassing artistry has elevated this Adelaide Festival to greatness.

This concert of Bach’s Goldberg Variations took place at the Adelaide Town Hall on March 15. Víkingur Ólafsson performs the work again at UKARIA Cultural Centre on Sunday, March 17 (details here).

Read more 2024 Adelaide Festival coverage here.

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