Mahan Esfahani’s Intriguing Goldberg Variations

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

From the start, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani deviates from the well-worn, well-known embellishments and grace-notes in Bach’s Goldberg Variations as we know them through Grandmaster Glenn Gould and just about everyone since. The easily irritable Esfahani knows he isn’t the first to record these works, but the 132nd (rough estimate). And against this background of the familiar, his deviation is very welcome. He isn’t always so obviously different from the subtly expected norm, but he is nearly always swift (against which the nobility and clarity of the 24th Variation—with sneaked-in grace notes—contrasts splendidly), and he often employs agogic limps, as if dragging one leg (or hand) behind the other, like a lump-footed troglodyte out on a spring dance.

Tempo changes for entire blocks of music can happen abruptly, as if a Bruckner symphony had sat model. Stamping your personality more strongly on a work makes it all the more subject to personal taste, rather than just objective criteria. In the penultimate Variation Esfahani races away as if bolted to a supercharged sewing machine, only to arrive dancing with grace at the rustic Quodlibet. I happen to like very much what Esfahani is doing, and it is held together by the objectively beautiful, crisp, and golden tone he elicits from his modern copy of an instrument by Johann Heinrich Harraß —the instrument builder who would go on to build the “Bach-Cembalo” and whose father had already built a harpsichord for Bach in Arnstadt.

Among the generally more conservative crowd of harpsichordists, Esfahani is downright Tzimon Barto-esque in these Goldberg Variations, which he may not think of as praise, but I do, with Barto’s wildly wilful account being a dear favorite and guilty-pleasure. This isn’t likely to be the new standard on the harpsichord: the sparkling, bubbly Pierre Hantaï (1992/Opus 111, or 2003/Mirare) is. Even Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi) with his tempered flexibility might be considered more of a standard-bearer, although his malleable style isn’t devoid of detractors, either. (As per our Jed Distler: “One man’s malleability is another man’s spinelessness.”). And then there are the colorful and playful Andreas Staier (Harmonia Mundi), the free, knotty, agogic Céline Frisch (Alpha), and classics like Gilbert (Harmonia Mundi) and Kipnis (EMI) to consider. But being the new standard—one to please all and sundry—is presumably not what Esfahani set out to produce. And for your third (or 132nd) recording on the harpsichord, it’s an attractive, intriguing choice.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Hantaï (Opus 111 or Mirare); Frisch (Alpha); Gilbert (Harmonia Mundi); Rannou (Alpha)

  • Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

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