Album Review: Bach Goldberg Variations, Mahan Esfahani


Virtuoso harpsichord player Mahan Esfahani has released a new recording of J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Australian audiences will remember his brilliant performance at Brisbane Baroque 2016 where he was a leading act. The release of this disc coincides with Esfahani’s December 2016 performance of the Goldberg Variations at London’s Wigmore Hall. It is the curtain raiser for an exploration of Bach’s harpsichord works which Esfahani will perform over 5 seasons.

This Holy Grail of the keyboard repertoire, written for two-manual harpsichord in 1741, has been recorded on piano and harpsichord by some of the most formidable names in the history of recorded keyboard music, amongst them, Wanda Landowska, Rosalyn Tureck, Glenn Gould, Gustav Leonhardt, Trevor Pinnock, Angela Hewitt, Ton Koopman…..the list goes on. Not only that, it’s one of the rare works to have been recorded several times by the same artists at various stages through their careers. Rosalyn Tureck made no less than seven recordings; Glenn Gould made two studio recordings; Wanda Landowska made two and Gustav Leonhardt made three.

Esfahani certainly has a heady new perspective on this work, stated most cogently in this recording which follows his performance of the variations at the BBC Proms (Cadogan Hall) in 2011 – the first solo harpsichord recital in the history of the Proms.

The surprises start with the opening bars of the Aria. Never has the phrase “less is more” been more meaningful. Esfahani’s pared down rendition is achingly beautiful and powerfully seductive in its sheer simplicity. He brings back the full complement of notes in the repeat, restoring the sense of familiarity before regaling us with his take on the thirty variations. The da capo Aria brings us full circle. It is an unparalleled view of the parts of Bach’s masterpiece.

The CD liner has invaluable insights from Esfahani and quotes from Bach’s original biographer, Forkel. Esfahani also writes about those who have influenced his career and the recordings of the variations he grew up listening to. Interestingly, Glenn Gould and Roslyn Tureck are absent from the list which includes, amongst others, Landowska, Kempff and Busoni. Harpsichord technician Simon Neal writes a unique commentary on his rationale for tuning the instruments as he did, pitched at a’= 415Hz and built by Huw Saunders in London in 2013 after a c1710 Thuringian double manual instrument by Harrass. The album was recorded in Cologne in April 2016.

Something very special.





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