To be frank, I viewed the prospect of this recital with the greatest trepidation. Of all the works that have become established in the modern consciousness as the Everests of classical music, the Goldberg Variations has been for me the most problematic. I have two CDs of the work, in the last two decades I have heard at least four live performances and yet at best in a good mood I have reacted with moderate pleasure, whilst in a bad mood thinking the endless patterning of the variations ultimately just plain boring, at least to my ear and with my limited technical knowledge.
The nearest I have got to extended enjoyment live was with a performance by Joanna Macgregor at LIMF many years ago in which she provided an often witty title for each variation. This a) gave me a chart as to where I was and b) actually suggested that the work was centrally amusing and delightful, an uncomfortable concept perhaps for that rather frightening figure, the Bach purist. Other than that I’ve heard string transcriptions which seemed to me hardly to enhance the work and on one occasion a performance with interpolated readings of stream of consciousness babble which only succeeded in converting moderate boredom into something so extreme that, as the performance meandered on, one looked forward ever more longingly towards the exit doors. Add to that the fact that over the years I have heard very few harpsichord recitals and have tended to agree with Sir Thomas Beecham’s comparison of the instrument ‘s sound to skeletons rattling around doing quite unmentionable things and it will be seen, despite the fact that I had read many positive things about this soloist, why I hardly approached this recital with enthusiasm.
Well, wrong again! I quickly realised that there are harpsichords and harpsichords and that the one being played here was a remarkably beautiful specimen, both to look at and to listen to. On top of that was the quickly self evident fact that Mahan Esfahani’s reputation as a front rank artist was fully justified. Result: despite ingrown resistance to Goldberg and his variations, I found myself utterly wrapped up in what I was hearing and eagerly waiting for what was to come next, so much so that when Mr. Esfahani wryly expressed disappointment at the end of the concert that because of time restraints he was unable to play all the repeats, I swear that I would have stayed had he sat down at the key board to do just that. Instead, we had two delightful Scarlatti sonatas as short encores.
Why in particular I should have had , for me, these entirely novel feelings is more difficult to explain. Undoubtedly, it had something to do with the piece being played on the harpsichord, perhaps just this harpsichord. To begin with the scale of sound was completely different to that of a piano, quieter, more in keeping in this work perhaps with the performing space. There was an intimacy that drained the work of its potential portentousness and in its stead was conveyed the sense of a great composer intrigued and delighted in seeing how things would come out as he wove his patterns of sound around a ground plan.
Then there was the sound itself, in particular a treble that on occasions sounded almost like small bells. The ascending and descending runs of notes were often delivered at staggering velocity but the instrument and the player somehow managed to delineate for a split second each note. One seeks for words to describe the effect. Perhaps it might be likened to being the aural equivalent of fine sprays of water in which miraculously each droplet is for a split second registered on the eye. I have rarely heard anything more exhilarating. Add to that a beautifully clear bass with none of the potentially too overbearing weight of a pianoforte in this area and it was perhaps hardly surprising that the work seemed for once a continual delight. It also paradoxically allowed the moments of expressive depth and beauty like Variation 25 to be revealed naturally and not like some statement about the meaning of life.
All in all then, an engrossing experience and not to be easily forgotten. As so often in this season’s concerts, one hopes for a return of the artist in the not too distant future.