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Víkingur Ólafsson, 'Variation No. 1 (Goldberg Variations)'

Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson might be a little mystified by being called "Iceland's Glenn Gould," but the Reykjavik native's approach to Bach's Goldberg Variations not only lives up to the hype but exceeds it. His full album of Bach's Goldbergs is out on Oct. 6, but the label has released a few "singles" ahead of time.

The "Variation No. 1," like Gould's groundbreaking 1955 recording, is fleet, even speedy, but that's where the association ends. Gould's sewing machine precision is impressive, but the overall feeling is aloof and unnecessarily rushed. Ólafsson's performance has pace, but shines in its crystalline transparency of voices, lyrical in how split-second notes are connected, and above all exudes pure joy.

As far as the Gould comparison goes, Ólafsson says while he doesn't buy into it, the results might have value. "It really divides people," he told NPR in 2020. "And in a way, that's what great art should do. Because I do think art does need instability sometimes."

Many major pianists, at some point in their career, confront the Mount Everest that is Bach's Goldberg Variations. And if the music — beyond its intellectual rigor and exuberance — is a measuring stick for greatness, then Víkingur Ólafsson's probing, jubilant and often danceable performance, ranks among the most satisfying.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.