Arts concert review

A beautifully rendered masterpiece: Ólafsson performs Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony


Bach’s Goldberg Variations

The New England Conservatory/Celebrity Series of Boston

Performed by Víkingur Ólafsson

Jordan Hall

Feb. 10, 2024

On Saturday night, as the lights dimmed in the New England Conservatory’s gorgeously adorned Jordan Hall, I took my seat for a performance of the Goldberg Variations. Icelandic pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson, was at last in Boston as part of a year-long world tour spanning six continents. One of the most sought-after pianists today, his previous appearances have included the world’s major concert halls, including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Philharmonie Berlin, Sala São Paulo, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, and many others. I will make an earnest attempt to convey my most memorable impressions onto the page, so that the rare MIT student with a curiosity in Boston’s classical scene might derive vicarious enjoyment from the details, or perhaps even consider purchasing tickets for some similar performance in the future.

For those unfamiliar with the particular piece, the “Goldberg Variations” is a composition published in 1741 by Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of an aria and 30 variations on its themes. The opening has been likened to a pleasant ramble around a Baroque cathedral and the variations to the carefully wrought carvings and statuary that adorn its walls, calling for closer scrutiny. As the story goes, Bach’s Goldberg Variations were commissioned by Count Kaiserling, former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony. Supposedly something of an invalid and insomniac, the Count requested his private harpsichordist, Johann Gottfried Goldberg, to play the variations for him by night as a way to ease his sleeplessness and beguile the late hours — lending the Goldberg name to Bach’s composition. 

Running approximately eighty minutes in length, without intermission, Ólafsson delivered a mesmerizing marathon-like performance — completely from memory — on Saturday night. At times soft and wistful, imbued with a marked tenderness, he would leap suddenly to exuberant speeds and volumes. A touch melancholy at parts, yet frequently very cheerful, the performance represented a combination of Bach’s nonpareil brilliance and the expertise of Ólafsson to bring his music to life. Readers might remark that Bach wrote primarily for organ and harpsichord, the two keyboard instruments of his day, and so rarely used the dynamic markings familiar in piano sheet music (i.e. forte, pianissimo, etc.). Therefore, Ólafsson’s choices to play certain segments loudly and boldly, and others in a more delicate manner, are likely his own interpretation. Compared to Glenn Gould’s famously unconventional and innovative 1955 recording, Ólafsson kept a more traditional tempo, with greater use of the pedal and a less detached technique.

As I had the pleasure of being seated in a position to view the keys, I noticed a degree of showmanship in Ólafsson’s style. During the lively, galloping pace of certain variations, his right hand flew ecstatically back and forth over his left, eliciting gasps of appreciation from the audience. It was delightful and breathtaking to watch. When his left hand played alone, Ólafsson once or twice raised his right hand aloft with flourishes, as if conducting an orchestra. Finally, and perhaps most dramatically of all, in the final moments of the Goldberg Variations — when the memorable opening aria is played once more in closing — Ólafsson stooped so deeply over the piano that his forehead nearly touched the keys. The latter two examples, in a lesser musician, may have veered on affectation or sentimentality, but so evident was Ólafsson’s talent that these gestures appeared instead as moving augmentations of Bach’s composition.

When Ólafsson rose from the piano after nearly an hour and a half of continuous playing, he received a well-deserved standing ovation which stretched on for several minutes. The venue, as I was pleased to notice when the lights came on once more, was almost entirely full. What a joy it was to realize that, 274 years after his death, Bach’s music retains the power not only to sell out a large concert hall, but to fill a modern audience with such rapturous joy. Listening to the Goldberg Variations, rendered by such an exquisite pianist in the visual splendor of Jordan Hall, was one of the finest ways I could have imagined spending my Saturday night.