2 Aug 2011
Bach: Partitas; Chopin: Preludes
02 August 2011
In this post-authenticity period piano-Bach has become something of a passion of mine. This second album from Icelandic pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson, on the indie label Hands on Music/Dirrindí, is sure to intrigue and delight a wide audience.
Bach and Chopin make for a great programme, and this one is elegantly introduced by Ólafsson in his liner notes and rests on several connections between the two men. Firstly, and most obviously is that Chopin was a great admirer of Bach; he played and studied Bach's music throughout his life and even took it with him to Mallorca during convalescence whilst he was writing his own 24 preludes. More than that though, the polyphonic nature of Bach's music infuses Chopin's own style and, as Ólafsson puts it, 'Even with all its abundance of inspired melodies, Chopin's music is always contrapuntal: even the simplest melodic accompaniments are elevated to refined organisms of polyphonic complexity.'
In performance terms Ólafsson finds more intimate connections between the works of these two great composers through the 'singing tone' of inner voices as much as the melodic content. This, I think, is the holy grail of all Bach pianists: the balancing of textures on the modern piano. Ólafsson skilfully avoids the usual pitfalls, namely playing Bach in an overly crisp or minimally phrased way as if emulating a harpsichord or worse, smudging the texture and just bringing fugal entries to the foreground before drowning them in the homogeneous mush of the sustain pedal after just a few notes. Here, thankfully, Ólafsson keeps his texture clear and opts for a touch which sings.
The refreshing nature of Bach's Preludes affords a perfect calm before the storm of Chopin's magisterial Preludes. Having spend many years listening to the recordings of theseses exactly what he preaches with inner voices afforded an impressive illumination so that each Prelude truly is a 'refined organism of polyphonic complexity'. In places he chooses faster tempi that I would normally like – the famous A-flat major prelude (No. 17), for example, could maybe benefit from a more indulgent pace – but such decisions are, I suspect, the reason why his disc flows so well. Ólafsson really convinces the listener that these preludes belong together, making for a spectacular programme.
Beautifully recorded in Mendelssohn Hall, Gewandhaus, Leipzig this disc is well worth seeking out by fans of either the Bach or Chopin camp and Ólafsson is surely a pianist to listen out for.
Víkingur Ólafsson (piano) Hands on Music/Dirrindí