What: Bach, Goldberg Variations (Deutsche Grammophon)
Rating: 5/5
Verdict: Music written to sweeten insomnia delivers an edge-of-the-seat listening experience.

Doubtlessly it was Mahan Esfahani's guest turn with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra this year that persuaded local distributors to release his new, award-winning recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

The harpsichordist's provocative, straight-talking booklet essay slams the academic baggage that has clustered around this mighty work and he reminds us of its eminently down-to-earth inspiration. It was written for Bach's pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play and sweeten the sleepless nights of his noble employer, the good Count Keyserling.

But could anyone really nod off during the 79 riveting minutes of this performance? I think not. The Goldberg Variations have coaxed scores of harpsichordist and pianists into the recording studio and Esfahani acknowledges some who have gone before, with subtle musical nods.


However, playing a sonorous Huw Saunders reconstruction of a 1710 two-manual instrument, he invests his Bach with an attitude and chutzpah that are all his own. The music springs into magnificent life, sparking an extraordinary range of colours, right down to the gentle percussive clatter of the instrument's mechanism.

Back-to-Baroquers intent on checking out niceties of ornamentation and rightness of tempo will have some surprises; my ears certainly pricked up when the first of Bach's many curling canons was delivered at such a sprint and with such grace.

Two canons later, sighing rubato might have you catching your breath in sync with Esfahani's elegant phrasing. And be warned: visceral thrills are inevitable when he calls on both keyboards to brilliant and occasionally theatrical effect.

What: Shostakovich, Piano Concertos (Naxos)
Rating: 4/5
Verdict: Naxos comes up with the perfect pairing of Shostakovich concertos

On disc, Shostakovich's two piano concertos make perennially popular partners and this new Naxos CD, featuring Boris Giltburg with Vasily Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, presents the perfect pairing.

And if superlative performances aren't recommendation enough, then the pianist's sharply written booklet essay offers extra enticement. He tells us he's addicted to Shostakovich, to the raw, visceral power of his music, its explosive drive and spiky humour. He admires the composer's intuitive ability to distil into music the most basic, even primitive human emotions and hurl them at the listener with such force that one's being reverberates in shock.

The First Concerto holds back from any hurling until Giltburg has ensnared us, stalking stealthily through the opening pages, toying with our expectations, as a cat might with its doomed prey. When emotions do ignite, we're on a knife edge; even those familiar with the piece's many devious twists and turns won't emerge unsurprised.

Rhys Owens' trumpet is a wily conspirator alongside him and listen out for Petrenko's heartstopping launch of the slow movement, painted in shades of a Slavic Satie Gymnopedie.

Almost a quarter-century separates this and the 1957 Second Concerto, a score with fewer barbs concealed in its glitter. Opening with all the unbridled fun of the circus and ending with a finale that seems to send up the uber-romantic Rachmaninov, the soul of the work lies in its Andante. Giltburg describes this movement as a piece of deep, sincere sadness and catches it beautifully, to the last sigh.

The disc is topped up with the pianist's own transcription of Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet, in which one marvels at the ingenuity with which this music has been moved from strings to keyboard. This was a dazzler in his Auckland recital last year but, on disc, the second movement doesn't quite release the klezmer fury we heard and saw then.