Mahan Esfahani performs the Goldberg Variations.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations represents one of the great masterworks in all of classical music. It was written for harpsichord, but is often performed and recorded on piano. Mahan Esfahani, an Iranian-American harpsichordist, recently played the Goldberg Variations in a performance recorded at the Bach-Archiv Leipzig in Germany.

University of Chicago Presents offered this fascinating concert via video streaming last week. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Esfahani had been scheduled to perform here in Hyde Park this past February. He had the Goldberg Variations as the main work on his program. While that concert had to be cancelled, this video offered Hyde Parkers, or any ticket holder for that matter, the chance to hear this passionate harpsichordist.

Esfahani provided a bracing, individualistic interpretation playing on a beautiful instrument: a 2003 harpsichord by Mattias Griewisch that is a copy of a 1704 instrument by Michael Mietke. One lovely aspect of this harpsichord is that the keys which on a piano would be white are black here, and the keys which are black on the piano are white on this harpsichord. This coloring is not unique, but it is a pleasing visual element for those who mostly watch classical videos with piano as the keyboard instrument.

The performer didn’t speak to us directly, explaining why we should care about his views on the Goldberg Variations, or what they mean to him or what he thinks they meant to Bach. All his persuading, cajoling, and enticing moments are made through the music, which he played with great commitment and care.

Esfahani is a skilled musician. He is nimble with rapid passages, offering clear articulation along with racing speed. His ornaments are light and airy. Tempos are important to him and some might argue that he is too glib by making some fast tempos too fast and some slow tempos too slow. Yet I found these wide differences enhanced the music. I also loved his rubato, particularly near the end of a few variations, which added fascinating drama and depth.

The recording of this performance was interesting, yet it was more tantalizing than satisfying. The visual aspect of the video was remarkably cold. Esfahani was alone with the harpsichord in a large room. Close-ups of the man featured the usual grimaces and faraway smiles performers often display. That’s fine and to be expected. But the video really failed to give you a bird’s eye view of his physical artistry. The camerawork around his hands was spotty and unsatisfactory. 

One angle that had the potential to be fantastic ended up being thoroughly disappointing. There was a ceiling camera that faced down directly on the keyboard. It was so high that the chandelier above the piano seemed far away from the camera, and Esfahani’s hands seemed miles away. 

Nonetheless, Esfahani offered a satisfying, fascinating performance of a great work, making you hope that one day in the future he will actually make it to Hyde Park for a live performance.

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