Two albums that offer new performances of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” are among the most compelling musical events of the past year. Both are on the shortlist for the 2017 Gramophone Awards. Mahan Esfahani, who plays the work on the harpsichord, is a candidate in the Baroque Instrumental category, Beatrice Rana in the Instrumental category. (The winners are due to be announced on September 1.)

Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, related that the “Goldberg Variations” were written for Count Hermann-Karl von Keyserling, a former Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony. He suffered from insomnia and asked Bach to write him a work that would make his sleepless nights more bearable. It was to be played by the gifted young harpsichordist he employed, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, whose name was immortalized as a result.

A great story, but apparently incorrect. In her liner notes for the album, Rana refers to the musicological research that refutes Forkel’s account. Esfahani, for his part, thinks that, because the story has inspired generations of musicians, its factual authenticity is of no account.

As for performances of the work, Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording will be in first place on my list of albums to take to a desert island. Indeed, initially it was thought that after Gould it was no longer possible to touch the work or to cope with its performance. However, it’s too multidimensional and complex a work to be exhausted by any one performance, however rare. Many subsequent recordings have illuminated additional facets of the “Goldbergs.” Noteworthy are Angela Hewitt’s 1999 recording, which highlights the structure with great transparency, the sweeping performance by Jeremy Denk from 2013, and now, the two new versions by Rana and Esfahani.

Riveting listening experience

Rana enjoys the advantages of the piano – rich dynamics, abundant shading, a full, resonant sound – all of which are brought to the fore in the fine, focused quality of the recording (on the Erato label). Her playing also displays original, personal punctuation. Already in the opening aria, which is played slowly, free construction and changes of pace allow simultaneously a sense of flow and constant motion. In her liner notes, Rana sets forth clearly the work’s consistent structure: 10 series of three variations, the first a dance, the second a toccata, the third a canon. The final variation, no. 30, is an exception in being a quodlibet – a contrapuntal fusion of popular melodies. Rana’s playing underscores the structure and the internal order without hindering the flux of the transitions between the passages. Though I didn’t connect with Rana’s dynamics and punctuation in every case, overall her album is a riveting listening experience.

Esfahani’s album (on Deutsche Grammophon) calls for more intense listening, principally because of the more limited character of the harpsichord. Still, to me it offers the more powerful experience of the two. Esfahani plays an instrument – built in England in 2013 by Huw Sanders – that has a warm, full sound. The excellent recording reveals that he is capable of extracting from it an abundance of shades and subtleties of expression. The variations move in gentle swells, with the long, dark 25th variation an immersion in a tremendous emotional wave. The entry into the quodlibet is surprisingly soft, the whole passage played with delicate lucidity, following which the return to the aria generates an emotional peak, caressing and electrifying.