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As a personal selection of Bach keyboard works – or as a sampler for anyone unfamiliar with them – Víkingur Ólafsson’s new album works tolerably well. He mixes up three Preludes and Fugues (drawn from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier) with chorale prelude transcriptions by Wilhelm Kempff and Busoni, plus cherry-picked extracts such as the Gavotte from Rachmaninov’s transcription of the third violin Partita, the Andante from the E minor Trio Sonata (slowed to Adagio in Stradal’s mellifluous arrangement) and a couple of Sinfonias and Inventions. He even provides a lovely transcription of his own, the Aria from the cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde, though this is overshadowed by his delightful rendition of the Aria variata.

Bach’s keyboard music is an overcrowded area; any newcomer will be eclipsed unless they can offer something truly special. Ólafsson’s accounts are certainly fluent and polished, but do not strike me as exceptional. Take the three Preludes and Fugues from Book I; compared with, for example, András Schiff (ECM) or harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková (Erato), Ólafsson lacks that extra degree of insight. He fails to ignite the fire infusing Růžičková’s playing of the C minor BWV 847, and does not attain the level of poetry Schiff finds in the E minor Prelude BWV 855 – though matters are otherwise in Siloti’s transcription, which transposes the Prelude to B minor!

There is much to enjoy here, nonetheless: highlights include the Concerto in D minor after Marcello (which has earned notoriety for being featured in 50 Shades of Grey) and the Fantasia and Fugue BWV 904. With a recording of stunning clarity made in Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert House, all the shades – grey or otherwise – make their mark.

GUY RICKARDS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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