Booking hapsichordist Mahan Esfahani with a solo Bach programme at Germany's biggest club festival on Hamburg's Reeperbahn was an unlikely, even bold move. Now in its eleventh year, the Reeperbahn Festival has firmly established itself as one of the world's most prestigious and loved events celebrating newcomers of genres such as indie pop, singer/songwriter, rock and hip hop. Despite having long embraced experimental and conceptual music, this year's addition of some artists of a purely classical background was a somewhat surprising nod to the festival's open minded policy and an attempt to bridge often-artificial boundaries between genres considered high and low art respectively. Mahan Esfahani, a hapsichordist of world renown, was probably the festival's most daring and (in this context) extreme choice of the artists appearing. A Bach recital on hapsichord, rather than on concert piano with its arguably easily accessible sound, sits in a niche even amongst lovers of classical music.

Mahan Esfahani © Marco Borggreve
Mahan Esfahani
© Marco Borggreve

Despite the unusual surrounding of the Reeperbahn Festival, Esfahani's performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations proved to be truly magical. Appearing at Hamburg's new performance space for new classical and experimental music, the “resonanzraum” at an over-ground WWII bunker, he shared the stage with pianist Olga Schemp and cellist Gabriel Schwabe on the second night of the festival, taking the floor at around midnight. Much in the spirit of the festival, which encourages musicians to engage with their audiences in intimate venues with small visitor capacities, Esfahani briefly addressed the rather small audience having made its way to the resonanzraum late at night. In a charmingly self-deprecating manner, Esfahani expressed his surprise that given the wide choice of musical entertainment, some people had decided on attending a Bach recital. His ensuing rendition of the Goldberg Variations was nothing short of masterful. His reading was rich with interpretative detail, subtle articulation and personality, not to speak of impeccable technique. From the first note of the opening aria, Esfahani managed to maintain tension and control throughout this composition of monumental significance. His feeling for musical line and dramatic development was remarkable, his concentration being all the more impressive amidst a festival marked by constant bustle of the nearby Reeperbahn, movement of people in and out of venues, and the overpowering noise of amplified guitars and drum kits. Esfahani's performance created a sanctuary of quiet and attention, with not a monotonous moment throughout. His passion for playing and interpreting Bach was as a much evident as was his deep respect and even modesty in his approach.

At all times, Esfahani was completely immersed in the score, seemingly oblivious to his audience. His close and expressive engagement with the material made this rendition truly special, as did his extraordinary skill in preparing moods in between variations and shedding light on the piece's intricate architecture. The aria's lyrical melody, pensive in Esfahani's interpretation, is followed by 30 variations, which are dotted with canons and end with a repeat of the initial aria. Esfahani's tempi were spirited, but never crossed the line to the rushed. While maintaining utmost control in the dense structures of Bach's counterpoint, he succeeded in imbuing every variation with a sense of unique character, most evidently in the gentle lilt of the light Baroque dances and contrasting, beautifully restrained and emotive slow variations, such as the somber Varation 16, Canone al Quinta. Where, traditionally, the hapsichord is rather restrictive with regard to varied articulation, Esfahani's tone and dynamics are finely nuanced, ranging between delicate, lucid passages and full-throated dramatic storms in the virtuosic variations. His ornamentations, while precise and crisp, never sounded mechanical or forced. This is one of Esfahani's great accomplishments: this rendering of Bach's Goldberg Variations was more than a technical and intellectual excercise, it was also sensuous and soulful. This arresting musical tour de force was met with cheers and enthusiastic applause. The memorable night drew to a close with a performance of William Croft's Ground from the Suite No.3 in C minor, sometimes attributed to Henry Purcell.