The Goldberg crown has settled on a new head: Vikingur Olafsson’s Golberg Variations reviewed

Grade: A+ In 2018, the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson released a solo Bach album. It bounced along unforgettably. Olafsson’s subsequent albums for Deutsche Grammophon were all lovely, but like many ‘intellectual’ pianists blessed with a pearly touch he could sound a bit precious. I missed the playfulness of his Bach, and so when he announced he was recording the Goldberg Variations I was excited. Could he sprinkle the magic of his original album over this famous Aria and its 30 tightly argued variations, at a time when there are more than 200 rival recordings on piano floating around – and roughly the same number on harpsichord? (When Glenn Gould cut

Playing until her fingers bled: the dedication of the pianist Maria Yudina

The 20th century was an amazing time for Russian pianists, and the worse things got, politically and militarily, the more great pianists thrived, despite the extreme danger and discomfort in which they lived and in which some of them died. If we think immediately of Richter, the greatest of them all, and Gilels, there are at least 20 more that we could add without exaggeration. One of the most important was without question Maria Yudina, born in 1899, who astonishingly survived until 1970. She was not just a sovereign artist but an eccentric of the kind and degree that only Russia seems able and willing to supply. Reading a biography

The history of music – at breakneck speed

From Ladybird’s The Story of Music (a dinky 50 pages, generously illustrated) to Richard Taruskin’s five-volume epic The Oxford History of Western Music, the history of classical music has been sliced and stretched in print to fit every possible length, format and agenda. Andrew Gant’s Five Straight Lines joins the cluster of works jostling and elbowing at the midpoint of these extremes. The Oxford-based academic (whose previous books on carols and hymns have introduced us to a genial, approachable narrator, with a welcome glint in his eye), shouts no provocative argument or USP from his cover, makes no novel claims for his survey. This is, quite simply, a narrative of

This play is a wonder: Bach & Sons at the Bridge Theatre reviewed

Bach & Sons opens with the great composer tinkling away on a harpsichord while a toddler screeches his head off in the nursery. The script becomes a broader portrait of a richly creative and competitive family where everyone is bright, loud, witty, inventive, good-natured and affectionate. Bach teaches the elements of composition to his gifted sons. ‘Rules provoke expression. They challenge your ingenuity.’ And the audience is unobtrusively schooled in the elements of counterpoint by four actors singing ‘Frère Jacques’. Bach considers Carl’s work good but workmanlike. Wilhelm is better, a wayward, inspired and anarchic talent. When Carl hears this verdict he falls into a jealous rage but it doesn’t

Alan Rusbridger on the joys of four-hand piano

One of the few social activities not yet prohibited under lockdown laws is four-handed piano playing. I don’t mean sitting side-by-side at one keyboard. That would risk infection and, if snitched on, the possibility of sharing a prison cell with Piers Corbyn. No, the four hands must be divided equally across two pianos, and the instruments must be end-to-end. Safely isolated in this manner — perhaps three or four metres apart — the ivories can be tickled for as long as you want. I’ve been a devoted four-hand piano player all my life — due entirely to the limitations of the two I was born with. On one keyboard I

Shock tactics | 30 May 2019

Igor Levit has rapidly achieved cult status, as he certainly deserves. He has already reached the stage where he can programme enormous and pretty obscure works, such as Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia. Clearly, Levit’s taste runs to large-scale works, but his recently released disc, Life, shows his command of shorter pieces too. His first concert in this run of three was Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a performance that commanded an instant hush and was greeted with almost unseemly cheering and stamping from the Wigmore audience. Levit began this masterpiece in a remarkably quiet way, almost casually, but with an amazing singing tone. Indeed, except for the punctuating rigorous canons, he cultivated cantabile

Bach to the rescue

One of the great joys of the 18th-century novella La petite maison is the way Jean-François de Bastide matches the proportions and shape of the book to the architecture of the exquisite country house at the story’s heart. Zuzana Ružicková, the outstanding Czech harpsichordist who died in 2017 while working with Wendy Holden on this touching memoir, analyses Bach, a composer she more or less made her own in the second half of the 20th century,  in very similar terms: I have a tectonic rather than a visual memory, and as the melodies begin to build, in my mind I imagine a building… I instinctively know how it is built.

Why Peter Sellars’s staging of the St John Passion – which I sang in – was deeply flawed

It has been my privilege over the past two weeks to sing in the chorus of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under conductor Simon Rattle and director Peter Sellars in a staged production of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion. The experience has been life changing for some of my colleagues; it has certainly been unique. Dressed in black casual clothing, we spend much of the performance sauntering around the stage making abstract gestures intended to highlight certain words and distill the myriad emotions found in the music. Some find this effective; others find it silly. Sellars’s forte as a director is his ability to communicate to his performers

The saddest music in the world

It’s a strange compliment to pay a composer — that the most profound impression their music makes is of an absence. I can’t claim much prior experience of the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who died in 1996: a vague sense of a Shostakovich-like figure who had a bad time of it under Stalin, and the composer of an opera, The Passenger, for which great claims are made by people whose judgment I respect but who probably, on balance, spend too much time with their heads in Eastern Europe. By the end of the first evening of this ‘Weinberg Weekend’, devised by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I

In the footsteps of Bach

It was in his organ loft at Arnstadt that I began my acquaintance with Johann Sebastian Bach — with JSB, with the young man, with the writer, the fighter, the lover. After the great walk of his in 1705 that we would follow, and after his return trek in February 1706, he would be caught at it in that organ loft with a ‘mysterious’ woman, who may or may not have been she who became his wife. It is the perfect place for a stolen moment. The church is now white and golden, and wooden, ugly on the outside and elegant as a cream bun on the in. To reach

How the music of Bach can teach us how to die

Imagine if we had access to over a hundred Shakespeare plays in which the Bard was at or near the top of his game – but we didn’t bother to watch them and couldn’t even remember their names. Bach has as good a claim as any composer to be the Shakespeare of music, yet a vast proportion of his work is little known even by music-lovers. He left us more than 200 sacred cantatas (many more are missing), most of which are miraculously inspired. So, why their neglect? Is it their supposedly dour and frightening Lutheran theology? The latest Holy Smoke podcast suggests that, if we take the plunge, the

Speed limit | 19 October 2017

Slow radio is popping up everywhere at the moment — programmes that have no outward form but just meander through the schedule, and often, but not always, are played out live in real time. In spite of their spontaneous feel and free flow these programmes have usually been carefully orchestrated, and that’s part of slow radio’s appeal: crafted to sound like life itself, impressionistic, en plein air, long-running. It’s not to everyone’s taste — too slow, too redolent of nostalgia for a mystical past where there was once time and space to think. Who wants to follow Horatio Clare’s every footfall as he tramps for ten miles along Offa’s Dyke

Vice and virtue

‘Can the ultimate betrayal ever be forgiven?’ screams the publicity for The Judas Passion, transforming a Biblical drama into a spears-and-sandals soap opera in a sentence. Thankfully, this really isn’t the premise of composer Sally Beamish and poet David Harsent’s new oratorio. Instead, the two authors pose a more interesting problem: is betrayal still betrayal when it’s divinely ordained, the price of salvation? A performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony this week celebrated the innocent joys of heaven; The Judas Passion invited us to count their sinful cost. You see them before you hear them. The 30 pieces of silver catch the light as they hang suspended as part of the

An orchestrated race storm

A fascinating story has emerged from a north-western leftie quadrant of the United States: the sacking of British conductor Matthew Halls from his post of artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival, in the college town of Eugene. Mr Halls insists he has not been told why he has been fired. Sponsors and supporters of the festival are also in the dark. Oregon University, which runs the bash, has said only that it intends to pursue a ‘different direction’ to the one pursued by Mr Halls, and hence he has to go. I would have thought there were a limited number of directions one could pursue with a Bach festival,

A square dance in Heaven

It’s 500 years since Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, sparking what would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. His superficial complaint was against the corrupt practice of indulgences, the Catholic Church teasing money out of the gullible and persuading them that they could buy their way into Heaven. But what Luther, a professor of theology, really wanted was for God to be made accessible to everyone and for worship to be more intimate, more direct, and in the vernacular, not Latin. We think of him now as a man of the text, who believed that faith was so

Passion indeed

‘The dripping blood our only drink/ The bloody flesh our only food…/ Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.’ In spite of that. Anglo-Catholic convert T.S. Eliot knew a thing or two about Easter. The Passion story might end with resurrection and redemption, but it’s a celebration that we achieve in spite of agony, torture and abandonment, a tale whose root lies in the Latin ‘passio’, meaning suffering. Musical Passion settings are no different — or shouldn’t be. A performance of Bach’s St John or St Matthew Passion should disquiet, even distress, as much as it consoles. But concert performances have become a comfortable festive tradition to

Tales of the unexpected | 12 April 2017

It’s the oddest place to find a profound meditation on the death of Christ, but there it is on Radio 2 every year on the night of Good Friday, on the ‘light music’ station, and not on Radio 3 or Radio 4, where you might expect to find it. This year At the Foot of the Cross was sandwiched between Desmond Carrington — All Time Great and Sara Cox’s disco beats, the uncompromising reflections on the nature of belief adding a certain bite to the evening. Diane Louise Jordan and her host of guests at the Watford Colosseum (including the Bach Choir and the tenor Wynne Evans) created a sequence

Grave goods

There’s a folder in my computer’s external hard drive in which you’ll find 24 complete recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, 100 recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, 97 of his Sixth, 107 of his Seventh, 65 of Bruckner’s Seventh, 26 of Debussy’s La Mer, 44 Fauré Requiems, 25 Mozart Requiems, 79 Mahler Sixths and 45 Rachmaninov Second Piano Concertos. That sounds as if I’ve moved beyond anorak collecting to compulsive hoarding; or maybe I have delusions of presenting Building a Library on Radio 3 (‘… but only Tennstedt, with his impulsive diminuendo, grasps that the second subject is tragically compromised by the shift to C sharp minor’). Actually, I didn’t

Bach to basics

The churning, rheumatic mechanism of a harpsichord — notes needling your ears like drops of acid rain — doesn’t necessarily play well to an audience whose sensibilities have been moulded around the picture-perfect delicacies of the classical piano. J.S. Bach’s freakishly popular Goldberg Variations remains best known through the recording made by the oddball Canadian pianist Glenn Gould in 1955, a record that would bleed unexpectedly into mainstream consciousness. For a whole generation, the sound of the Goldbergs became interchangeable with Gould’s quicksilver fingers — and a collective amnesia grew around the fact that Bach had actually conceived his most famous keyboard work for the harpsichord. Six decades on, a

Losing their religion | 21 July 2016

Scriabin once suggested that the audiences for his music should be segregated according to their degree of personal enlightenment, with the ‘least spiritually advanced’ in the worst seats. Unsurprisingly it didn’t happen. But perhaps the Southbank Centre should take up the challenge. For its 2016–17 season, the centre has devised a series of concerts and talks entitled Belief and Beyond Belief. This ‘festival’, as it grandly styles itself, could have been an exploration of the enormous and neglected influence of faith on the great composers. Could have been — but, predictably, won’t be. Instead, the Southbank has chosen to subsume religious faith into ‘belief’, whatever that is, and then tacked