Stories » Jean Rondeau and Mahan Esfahani hip up the harpsichord / The New Yorker

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Jean Rondeau and Mahan Esfahani hip up the harpsichord / The New Yorker

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If you know Bach's Goldberg Variations only through the eternally best-selling recordings by Glenn Gould, you have not really heard the work. Gould was a brilliant but idiosyncratic player whose approach to Bach might be compared to Laurence Olivier's renditions of Shakespeare: the art can obscure the matter. Furthermore, the Goldbergs drastically change character when they are transferred from the harpsichord, for which they were written, to the piano. The equal-tempered tuning of the modern piano is markedly different from tuning systems of the early eighteenth century, and the instrument's opulent sonorities cast a Romantic blur over Bach's harmony and counterpoint. To avoid muddying the texture, pianists rely on a clean, detached style, and as a result the music too often sounds subdued, fastidious, even soporific.

This is not to say that presenting Bach on the piano is any sort of categorical mistake. The composer took an interest in new instruments, including the fortepiano, and his music should not be confined to the technologies of his time. When a pianist on the order of Murray Perahia or András Schiff undertakes the Goldbergs, it is hardly an inauthentic experience. 

A new generation of harpsichordists is coming to the fore, one that has given an almost hipsterish profile to an instrument that is popularly stereotyped as archaic and twee. The Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has started beefs with early-music eminences and adopted such provocative repertory as Steve Reich's "Piano Phase." The young French keyboardist Jean Rondeau plays jazz on the side. These performers have room to mature, but their recent concerts and recordings-both with an emphasis on the Goldbergs-suggest that the venerable harpsichord, which Landowska called "the roi-soleil of instruments," will have a long future.