He tackles one of the greatest masterpieces of the Baroque repertoire -- Bach's Goldberg Variations -- with fresh eyes and his uniquely virtuosic way, taking the listener on a truly inspiring journey of varied moods and approaches.
. . .[every 10 years or so] a recording of J.S. Bach's "Goldberg Variations" arrives that significantly changes the way you hear the piece. So it is with Mahan Esfahani . . . [it's a high-personality performance] but with high-spirited expressive discoveries in nearly every phrase . . . Rarely have a harpsichordist's two hands had such minds of their own, periodically threatening to go their separate ways, creating much inner tension. Add to that Esfahani's brilliant finger work and flexible tempos, and you have a performance that won't let go of your ears . . .
. . . piercing insight . . . Esfahani shows amazing rhythmic freedom at times, sometimes teasing us with a long pause before a repeat starts. The final sequence of variations 26 to 29 accumulates brilliant excitement, after which the folk songs of variation 30 are a touching relaxation . . . A hugely stimulating account of one of the peaks of western music.
. . . [a] remarkable recording . . . [Esfahani] takes you on an arresting journey through Bach's "Goldberg Variations", where his sophisticated virtuosity, stylistic aplomb and strong personal profile give fresh and meaningful voice to this well-travelled score . . . [his navigation of the music's structure] is carefully considered without sounding in the least bit studied . . . Esfahani's shapely and variegated articulation of Vars 17 and 20 transcends the étude-like fingerwork, tapping directly into the music . . . the harpsichordist characterises certain variations principally through embellishment and tone colour . . . they never pull focus from Bach's melodic trajectory . . . [Esfahani's "Goldberg Variations" clearly belongs] in all serious Bach collections.
The first thing you notice about this remarkable recording is the unusual warmth and tonal vibrancy of the harpsichord . . . Mahan Esfahani obviously revels in its capabilities as he takes you on an arresting journey through Bach's "Goldberg Variations", where his sophisticated virtuosity, stylistic aplomb and strong personal profile give fresh and meaningful voice to this well-travelled score. His navigation of the music's structure (with all repeats intact, including those in the Aria "da capo") is carefully considered without sounding in the least bit studied, or different for the sake of being different. Take the opening Aria, for example. Esfahani provocatively pares down the embellishments à la Wilhelm Kempff and Igor Kipnis, but brings them back on the repeats. He takes advantage of each manual's timbral distinctions to the point where the cross-handed variations emerge with uncommon clarity and deft contrapuntal interplay. Consequently you perceive the pulse but not the bar-lines . . . In his booklet-notes, Esfahani plays down his own abilities in face of past luminaries such as Wanda Landowska, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Isolde Ahlgrimm, Zuzana Ruzicková and Alan Curtis. Don't believe Esfahani's modesty for one second. His "Goldberg Variations" clearly belongs in such company, and in all serious Bach collections.
. . . fascinating . . . you sense Esfahani mastering an intractable instrument for which Bach fashioned a masterpiece.
Mahan Esfahani's recording of this perennial favourite is unmissable.
Whether playing Rameau and CPE Bach or Steve Reich and Górecki, the Tehran-born Esfahani always seems to be asking not whether he has something new to say about the music but whether the music has something new to say to him. In other words, a merely novel interpretation isn't the endgame . . . there is something uniquely magical in the way Esfahani eases one into this most thrilling and sacred of musical journeys by first presenting the aria near-naked. That is, leaving most of the customary ornaments to the repeats -- and with that gentle extra forward momentum gained by stylishly arpeggiating bass and treble, before opening up delicate vistas of unalloyed joy in the first variation and thus setting the tone of things to come . . . The underlying architecture of the whole, meanwhile, luxuriates in those qualities of spontaneity and "sprezzatura" for which Esfahani is justly known.
Esfahani makes the most of his harpsichord's range of timbres, embellishes repeats and invests each variation with its own personality. Nothing, though, feels exaggerated.
. . . [Esfahani's] contributions are the extraordinary range and delicacy of his touch and his scrupulous attention to marching phrasing . . . 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 . . . 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 . . .
Every decade or so, an interpreter comes along who takes you beyond what you thought you knew about this baroque keyboard masterpiece and makes the music feel startlingly alive. So it is with Esfahani, who scrubs Bach's intricate contrapuntal designs to reveal their structural logic, observing all repeats and the original tunings. A back-to-Bach performance that lives wondrously in the present.
. . . [Esfahani] brings evangelical zeal and rich sound to Bach's great variations.
. . . [Mahan Esfahani] seems to have a magic touch on the instrument, coaxing out an extraordinary range of colour and articulations. Never has that been more evident than on this recording, where the playing matches the brilliant playfulness of Bach's variations.