Iranian American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani takes on the Everest for the harpsichord, J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. Others have tackled this masterpiece and conquered the mountain. How does this Stanford-trained, Guildhall School of Music professor rank?
The 30 variations follow an exquisite 'aria'. Some of the greatest performances of the Goldbergs are played on a modern piano, with its panoply of colours and textures. Achieving the same effect on the original harpsichord is much more problematic. What was it Sir Thomas Beecham said about the instrument? 'The sound of a harpsichord – two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.'
The Aria begins well if without the charm Glenn Gould brings to his mono version on CBS played on the piano. To be fair, this 1955 classic has not been surpassed, even by Gould's wonderful stereo version.
The Variations that follow the Aria are played with clean technique and musicality. Once again, on the harpsichord, longer pieces like the Goldbergs are difficult to maintain interest as the timbre of the instrument is so sustained. The instrument Esfahani uses is beautiful and he produces very melodious sounds. But there it ends, I'm afraid. Much of the phrasing is four square. All the notes are there, in the right place, but magic, so difficult to find in this piece, is missing.
If you want a real ride through the Goldbergs with the magic intact, you'll have to opt for piano. The aforementioned Gould or a recent Sony with the wonderful Igor Levit.
As for a recording, DGG scores big. The sound and mechanics of the instrument are revealed completely. A real treat for audiophiles and harpsichord fans.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Int. Release 26 Aug. 2016
1 CD / Download
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