Monday, October 22, 2018

Víkingur Ólafsson “Reworks” Bach: Cui Bono?

courtesy of Crossover Media

About a month ago Deutsche Grammophon released its second “concept” album of the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. The title of the album is Bach Reworks / Part 1, suggesting that this will be the first of series. The advance work for this album describes it as “a single extended, free-flowing composition, in which the juxtaposition of Bach’s original works and other composers’ transcriptions reveals the timeless character of Bach’s music.” The accompanying booklet includes an essay by Dorothea Walchshäusl which approaches the results of that juxtaposition as “a thrilling journey” and then proceeds to guide the reader through that journey.

This is, to say the least, a bold undertaking for both Ólafsson and Walchshäusl. However, it is worth asking, as I suggested in the title for this article, who benefits from such an effort. At the risk of scaling up the matter too outlandishly, I might also raise the questions of who benefits from playing or listening to Johann Sebastian Bach and how are those benefits realized. Addressing these questions must begin by recognizing that pedagogy was one of Bach’s major activities throughout his mature life, whether it involved his children, his patrons, or his “official” students by virtue of his position at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Furthermore, as we know from the title page of the inventions and sinfonias, pedagogy involved not only the dexterity necessary for clarity of execution but also the capacity to come up with “good ideas” (hence, the use of the noun “inventions”) and to deploy them both imaginatively and capably as part of the activity of performance.

Put another way, music-making for Bach was not a matter (or, at least, strictly a matter) of performing for an audience. Because notation was a key element in making music, one might almost say that the activity was one of communion between the notation and music-maker, a communion that involved far more that treating the “text” at face value. Thus, at least from Bach’s point of view, if we are to invoke the metaphor of the journey, then that journey has more to do with the activities of the music-maker, whether or not any listeners happen to be around at the time.

Now, to be fair, Ólafsson definitely scores high points when it comes to dexterity in his execution. There is even some evidence that he is exercising his own “good ideas,” even if those ideas often involve when it is appropriate the use the damper pedal or how to introduce contours of dynamic levels that would not have been available on any of the keyboard instruments that Bach played. On the other hand, at a purely personal level, I found it very hard to focus my attention of the tracks of Bach Reworks / Part 1, which seemed to have everything to do with the ego of the pianist and little to do with anyone else, not just Bach but also the transcribers.

Let me then pose the probably radical proposition that, where Bach is concerned, making is the only priority. I offer this statement as one whose ability to play Bach’s music is painfully (at least to me and probably to those unfortunate enough to hear me try) limited. Nevertheless, I find that I can still be an avid listener to both performances and recordings of Bach’s music. However, on those occasions, my listening is always guided by “background thoughts” about how I might dare to take even a few of those “good ideas” and put them into practice.

As a result I have to wonder seriously whether those who have not addressed matters of execution will find much of interest on Ólafsson’s album. For some, I can guess that listening will be a matter of how Ólafsson is telling his audience, “These are a few of my favorite things;” but will that be enough for a “disconnected listener” to buy into any of the tracks on this album? Personally, whether it involves playing directly from a “source text” or playing an arrangement, I have my doubts. Those who wonder what those doubts may be would do well to get hold of the recording made of Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own arrangement of the Gavotte movement from Bach’s BWV 1006 solo violin partita in E major and compare it with the corresponding track on Bach Reworks / Part 1. I am willing to bet that those undertaking such a comparison will find Ólafsson’s reading pale compared to Rachmaninoff’s, not because Ólafsson’s technique is not up to the task but because his capacity for “invention” is wanting.

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