Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Deutsche Grammophon DG 479 4929
JS Bach’s 32 Goldberg Variations are based on the harmonic skeleton of an Aria from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook. After the first two comes a series of nine canons from unison to ninth. Between each are two further variations, the first a Baroque character piece – dance, fugue, overture – and then an arabesque. Many of these are virtuoso pieces requiring hand-crossing on the two manuals of a large harpsichord.
Given such constraints from the composer, one might assume little is left but to play the notes. Mahan Esfahani, equipped with a magnificent 2013 instrument by Huw Saunders, proves otherwise. His contributions are the extraordinary range and delicacy of his touch and his scrupulous attention to matching phrasing. The second feature is immediately audible in the first of the canons. It’s at the unison so the lines are constantly entangled with each other, yet every articulatory subtlety is mirrored exactly bar-by-bar.
His touch draws a remarkable variety of tone, density and resonance from his instrument. In the opening Air, for instance, delayed lifting of his fingers creates deep sonority. Expressively, the Variations reach a climax in the middle: hands cross as if pole-vaulting in No. 14; No. 15 has the canon inverted while its minor mode evokes poignant harmonic nuances. No. 16 is a French Overture, in which Esfahani indulges himself in some mighty final octaves. He reserves fresh colours for his registration of No. 19 while the filigree of No. 20 flies past with utter clarity despite its pace. The recorded harpsichord sound is excellent, though there are a couple of extraneous clicks in track 5.