Mahan Esfahani’s searching exploration of the Goldberg Variations


Bach: Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord). Wigmore Hall, London, 21.12.2016. (MB)

Bach – Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

What could be more capable of lightening our darkness on the longest night of the darkest year most of us have ever known, perhaps even of defending us from some of its perils and dangers, than the music of Johann Sebastian Bach? Mahan Esfahani’s searching exploration of the fathomless Goldberg Variations – one of the few Bach keyboard works of which I stood so much in awe and trepidation that I never dared touch, let alone learn it – certainly did a great deal to offer solace and nourishment, intellectual and spiritual.

The Aria, flexible, though never for the sake of mere flexibility, imparted a fine sense of a storyteller, a narrator: ‘Once upon a time’, or ‘Es war einmal’. Already, by the second variation, we heard the truth of Bach’s plan as outlined by Esfahani in his excellent programme note, by turns scholarly and winningly speculative. The first of ten groups of variations – genre-piece, virtuous piece, canon – was clearly upon us, even if we had not yet heard that first canon at the unison. One of the many strengths of the performance was that that truth related equally to the work and to its interpretation: not in a bald, formalistic sense, but so as to liberate the musical imagination. Indeed, the Canone all’Unisono might have been subtitled ‘The Joy of Canon’; for no one, not even Haydn, does joy better than Bach. (Just think, if you doubt me, of the opening of the Gloria and Sanctus to the Mass in B minor.)

As the variations unfolded, we heard lines intertwine, as if they were solo singers in a cantata, or a pair of oboes or other obbligato instruments. Such connection occasionally had me speculate about ‘meaning’, but not for too long, lest I miss the ‘purely’ musical drama. Formal, rather than expressive kinship, with Scarlatti’s keyboard music came to mind too. More than once, I thought of the earlier, apparently less complex world – relatively speaking – of the Brandenburg Concertos, and indeed of the later world of Max Reger’s transcriptions of those works. Sometimes, especially at moments like those, I could have sworn I heard a third hand; I did not see it though.

Dance rhythms enabled connections, then: across and beyond the keyboard repertoire. They played an equally important role structurally, delineating the narrative – and narrative was very much a strength here, I think – of the performance. So too, though, did the canonical writing. The Canone alla quarta spoke with a perfection worthy of Mozart, or perhaps better, suggested why Bach’s music, although not necessarily this very work, proved so transformative for the later composer.

And those harmonies! This is not ‘just’ counterpoint, as if the opposition ever made any sense whatsoever in Bach, or indeed in most great music… Mozart would surely have relished, just as Esfahani did, the turns to the minor mode, to his special key of G minor, and the chromaticism unleashed. The ‘black pearl’, as we shall always know it, post-Landowska, seemed to renew its mysteries before us. Registration, tempo, rubato, no one component, nor indeed their combination, seemed quite enough, splendidly navigated though all those interpretative challenges were, to explain the alchemy not only heard but experienced. (We must, as the soloist told us, be active, not passive, as listeners, just as we must be active to transform the world around us.) A labyrinthine Bach who looked to Berg, a ‘Bach The Progressive’ in an almost Schoenbergian sense, a ‘Bach The Subjective’ in an Adornian yet not-Adornian sense: all those and more recomposed the work before our ears. This heightened, ‘special’ quality was not only apt but necessary.

Relief thereafter ran through Esfahani’s fingers – and our hearing of them. Yet soon, a quality of proliferation, reminding me how much Boulez revered Bach, took on its own, not always relieving life. There was an almost Brahmsian satisfaction to the ‘Quodlibet’; its good nature suggested a different musical future, that of Haydn’s sonata forms, which might initially seem to have eclipsed Bach’s music, but not for long. The return of the Aria, though, was, quite rightly, both return and nothing of the sort. It framed, like the return of our tale to the world of the storyteller himself; it was the same, and yet different. There was here, in Bach’s music, I think, both a glint and a tear in the eye. ‘Die Zeit,’ as a distinguished lady once said in not entirely dissimilar mood, ‘die ist ein sonderbar Ding.’

Mark Berry

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