I was fortunate to be able to attend Mahan Esfahani’s morning performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at The Fine Foundation’s Performance Gallery in Durlston Castle, Dorset, England on September 6. Esfahani performed on a handsome Keith Hill harpsichord (after Taskin) with a full blooming sound.
I approach any live performance of the Goldberg Variations – whether it be on piano or harpsichord – with considerable trepidation. For me, Glenn Gould’s recordings established a bar very few could ever hope to come close to. The pensive melancholy of his opening Aria; the zest in his opening bars of Variation 1; the unbridled joy in the first Canone; the sweetness of the Canone Alla Sesta; and the complexities expressed so eloquently in the Fugetta and other Variations are simply sublime.
So, I arrived at Durlston Castle’s Performance Gallery, with its stunning sea views from atop a high cliff, expecting much of Mahan Esfahani, but a little off-kilter due to the program. Happily, Esfahani’s performance of the Goldberg Variations was very much his own; his personal interpretation was evident in each and every Variation. It was a long performance of the Variations, largely because Esfahani incorporated a great many repeats; sometimes more than two repeats of a section were played. But Esfahani used these repeats to great effect, foremost in bringing out and reinforcing the different nuances and voices Bach wrote into the Variations, and secondarily to highlight his own interpretive abilities and technical prowess. His variations were full of life, brimming with complexity, sparkling with brilliant ornamentations, and completely absorbing. Esfahani’s hour-long rendition flew by. When the closing Aria was over there was a moment in time when the audience sat completely silent, still absorbing the beauty of J.S. Bach’s composition and the talent and authority Esfahani had shown in sharing it. It was a remarkable performance. Not Gould, but nonetheless leaving me with a lasting memory of great beauty.
Carolyn Winter, Aberfoyle Baroque