And so one of today’s most singular young harpsichordists comes to one of the most singular works ever written for the instrument, JS Bach’s Aria with 30 Variations, aka the Goldberg Variations.
The legend, propagated by one of Bach’s great early biographers Forkel, is well-known. In 1741 an insomniac Count von Keyserlingk of Dresden commissions from Bach a work which the Count’s harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, subsequently performs for his master to while away the sleepless hours.
Now considered an apocryphal story, it is no less attractive for that. But one thing is true: that in the last century and this one at least, both exponents and listeners of the piano or the harpsichord have spent many an hour in thrall to one of Bach’s most original and grandly conceived work for keyboards.
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 – though it may be a byproduct.
The aria, a stately sarabande that encloses the 30 variations, each of which the great American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick likened to a rosary bead, provides the 32-bar bass upon which those variations – every third one of which is a canon, nine in total – are constructed.
Harpsichordists whose Goldberg recordings I’ve enjoyed in the past include those of Masaaki Suzuki, Pierre Hantaï and Christophe Rousset; pianists, those of Glenn Gould (of course), Angela Hewitt, Charles Rosen, Rosalyn Tureck and the frighteningly talented Igor Levit.
But 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.
Indeed, in the subsequent variations, everything that has been laid out from the first – subtle use of agogic accents, the ‘broken’ style, myriad shadings of tone and articulation, extra (but not too many) embellishments and a sure sense of pace and rhythm – is made to serve and accentuate. The underlying architecture of the whole, meanwhile, luxuriates in those qualities of spontaneity and sprezzatura for which Esfahani is justly known.