There was a palpable feeling of anticipation as the audience awaited the appearance of Víkingur Ólafsson in the Opera House’s jam-packed Concert Hall, the stage set with the open Steinway grand and people chatting excitedly among themselves in various languages.

I can’t recall a similar fever of expectation since a 22-year-old Lang Lang made his Sydney debut 20 years ago. But tonight there would be no showboating, no tossing of sweat-stained handkerchiefs to adoring fans in the stalls, or high fives with the punters in the choir seats.

The tall Icelander, looking for all the world like young lawyer with his boyish face and spectacles, wasn’t dressed in a snug fitting charcoal business suit for nothing – there was work to be done and it involved guiding us through the “solar system” created by JS Bach with his Goldberg Variations.

Víkingur Ólafsson. Image courtesy of Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Craig Abercrombie

There can’t be a classical music lover anywhere who doesn’t know that Ólafsson is celebrating his 40th year by performing the 75-minute work in concert halls throughout the world. It was originally intended to be 88 shows – to coincide with the number of keys on a modern concert grand – but it has blown out to more than 90, and still counting.

To say this recital, part of Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s international pianists’ series, was wonderful, even miraculous, is to undersell it. To only be able to give it five stars seems paltry. I was lucky enough to see and hear the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, often acknowledged as the greatest Bach interpreter of her day, play the Goldberg in 2012, and that was a performance to live on in the memory.

But Ólafsson takes a very different approach – more organic. He shows us that behind the immaculate mathematics and perfect structure of the Aria and 30 variations there is indeed, as he says, a whole solar system of ideas, emotions and possibilities that Bach opens up for the performer and listener alike.

You get some sense of this from his recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label, but no matter how often you listen to that and other great recordings by Glenn Gould, András Schiff, Murray Perahia, Hewitt or whoever – and all the great pianists have taken it on – nothing comes near to experiencing it in the moment in the concert hall with a one-off performance that will never be exactly replicated, no matter how many times Ólafsson tackles it in a year.

Víkingur Ólafsson. Image courtesy of Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Craig Abercrombie

For this night the opening Aria was slow and stately as you would expect, with some judicious rubato and a featherlight touch spinning a magical web, fragile but strong at the same time.

Ólafsson managed to find colours that we never knew were there. After his explosive blast in the first variation – like Max Verstappen revving up on the grand prix starting grid – he manages to raise an inner smile with the three-part sinfonia’s skipping rhythm, showing us how Bach can be playful and was known to have liked a beer and singsong.

The cross-hand variations were also immaculate, the balance between left and right hands a thing to behold.

As Ólafsson explained afterwards, nobody wanted to know this work when it was published in 1741 – it was considered “old music” and people wanted to hear works by the younger Bachs that looked forward to the Classical school.

But JS was playing a bigger game, Ólafsson said. “I think the Goldberg Variations represent Bach’s message for posterity.”

Certainly in his slightly misty treatment of Variation 7 there were moments where we were looking ahead 160 years to hints of Debussy, while the French-style flourishes and fanfares of Variation 14 were magnificently Baroque.

Ólafsson’s control of dynamic is almost freakish – sometimes it is almost as if he has pushed the mute button and we hear the ghost of melody. The more dramatic pieces demand use of the pedals, but elsewhere his feet were planted firmly on the floor, his chest and head rotating slowly in a circular motion.

The crowning moment of the whole cycle is the famous Variation 25 Adagio the “Black Pearl”, almost 10 minutes of the most beautifully anguished keyboard music. Despite interruptions near me from a heavy footed usher having to deal with someone videoing on their phone, this was a spellbinding moment.

How do you follow that? Well if you are Bach with a short burst of semiquavers that generate all the joy of a newly-married couple coming out of church with bells ringing.

After that Ólafsson took us faultlessly through the whirling remaining canon and toccatas to the warm and earthy Quodlibet in which Bach seems to loosen a couple of buttons by quoting two popular tunes before sealing the masterpiece with a repeat of the Aria.

No need for an encore then, but Ólafsson did talk briefly and eloquently about this glorious creation with a lovely farewell word:

“I just wish Bach could have enjoyed some royalties – he earned them!”

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