Review: Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord); Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York University

First published in Music news and reviews by

Harpsichord recitals are rarities. They are also intimate affairs and require a special kind of communicator at the keyboard.

The Iranian-born Esfahani, now settled in the west, is that man. Already, in his 27th year, a mystique surrounds him.

He came out to play on Wednesday with a determined plod, as if in mountaineering boots.

As well he might, given that he faced Bach’s towering Goldberg Variations. He insisted on no applause until the end, even when he reappeared after the interval. It established a cocoon of intoxicating intensity.

Never in this hall’s history can a full house have listened with such rapt attention.

The work has a sarabande theme which frames 30 variations. They range from gentle doodles to lightning flashes. Esfahani was equal to them all.

He varied the registrations on his two-manual instrument.

But extra colours never clouded the clarity of the voices, even in Variation 10's fugue. He maintained this transparency in the whirlwind of Variation 12. His approach to the slower movements was extremely elastic, yet always persuasive, making the melancholy modulations of Variation 25 sound positively modern.

Elsewhere, his fingerwork was dazzling, throwing off the impossibly speedy Variation 20 almost nonchalantly and making a startling toccata of Variation 29.

This man has special powers. Bist Du Bei Mir (Stay By Me) as an encore was in keeping with the near-religious atmosphere he conjured. For this was nothing short of an act of worship.

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