By Clare Stevens

Mahan Esfahani has made it his life’s work to bring the harpsichord to the concert mainstream, through commissioning new work and collaborations with leading soloists and conductors. But in this atmospheric late-night concert in beautiful St Francis Xavier’s Roman Catholic Church, he played just one work, dating from 1741: the remarkable Goldberg Variations, reputedly written at the behest of Count Kayserling, Russian Ambassador to the Court of the Elector of Saxony, to be played by his court harpsichordist, Goldberg, in order to cheer him up when he could not sleep. The result was one of the greatest works of western music in existence.

To paraphrase Mahan Esfahani’s own fascinating programme note, these variations stand out even among Bach’s other great works as an example of his total compositional originality. ‘… unlike other sets of variations, the successive movements … are not constructed solely in terms of “musical-and-emotional cause and effect” (eg textural variety for its own sake)’, but on a pre-conceived plan whereby the thirty variations are made up of ten groups of three, each consisting of a piece in a particular very specific style – a dance, a fugue, an overture or an arioso, for example – is followed by a virtuoso piece featuring the crossing of the hands, and then by a canon (a piece in which different ‘voices’ played by each hand enter successively with the same melody). This stylistic architecture is enhanced by a sophisticated harmonic structure.

The many people in the packed audience who are familiar with the complexities of Bach’s compositional style and how the Goldberg Variations have been interpreted over the past three and a half centuries will have found much to analyse and discuss in Esfahani’s enthralling performance. He demonstrated extraordinary virtuosity, combining technical dexterity with deep understanding of the musical and philosophical possibilities offered by the work. It was a privilege to be present for this very special recital.