At the splendid venue that is Cadogan Hall, just north of London’s Sloane Square, Iranian-born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani demonstrated J S Bach’s immense skill and ingenuity in a spellbinding performance of the Goldberg Variations, one of the high Himalayan peaks of the keyboard repertoire.

© BBC / Marco Borggreve
© BBC / Marco Borggreve

Mahan Esfahani is fast establishing himself as the leading harpsichordist of his generation, bringing the harpsichord “out of hiding”, and has received glittering reviews for his playing. This concert, the first Chamber Prom of the season was also the first ever solo harpsichord recital in the history of the Proms, and Esfahani’s Proms debut.

Doubly innovative then, for the Goldberg Variations stand out as a key example of their composer’s great originality. Long-regarded as the most serious and ambitious work for harpsichord, the Goldberg Variations display Bach’s exceptional knowledge of the many different styles of music of his day, and his own exquisite performing techniques. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations
present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale.

Esfahani seems nonchalant at the keyboard, at times almost slouched in his seat, as if out for a casual drive in the car. At other times, he is animated, hunched over the keyboard or bouncing in his chair, or allowing a languid hand to conduct while the other is busy at one of the manuals (‘keyboards’: the work is composed for a double-manual harpsichord). He smiles and mutters to himself, raises his eyebrows or frowns, and, fanciful as it may seem, one wonders, watching him, whether he may actually be communicating with his muse. What was apparent throughout the performance was that he was thoroughly enjoying this wonderful music.

From the spine-tingling opening measures of the exquisite Aria to the final variation, Esfahani took us on a magical musical journey. This work is very familiar, yet in Esfahani’s amazingly skilled hands, he brought something new, fresh, revolutionary even, to this music, showing Bach’s rich and varied tapestry of writing, from muted to playful, glittering to mannered, exquisite and delightful, stately and melancholy, spooky and jazzy, and, at times, positively contemporary. Yet, nowhere did we lose the sense of Bach’s original vision. Ornaments, runs and passage work were played with the utmost clarity and lightness of touch, and Esfahani’s very special relationship with this music was obvious throughout. The Cadogan Hall audience were captivated, cocooned in the intense intimacy of the experience.

For an encore, Esfahani did not play: instead he read a quotation by Horace, which could easily have been spoken by Bach himself about his great work.