A Sparkling and Stylish Recital from Mahan Esfahani

19/07/2014

François Couperin, Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Benda, and Takemitsu:Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord). Wigmore Hall, London, 15.7.2014 (MB)

François CouperinQuatrième livre de pièces de clavecin: 26th ordre
BachThe Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: Preludes and Fugues in D minor, BWV 851; C-sharp minor, BWV 849; B major, BWV 868
Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910
C.P.E. Bach – Sonata in B-flat major, Wq. 48 no.2
Georg Anton Benda – Sonata no.4 in F major
TakemitsuRain Dreaming
C.P.E. Bach – Sonata in F-sharp minor, Wq. 52 no.4

 

This was a splendid recital, my only (minor) reservations reserved for a couple of the pieces, certainly not for Mahan Esfahani’s performances of them. No such reservations were felt, naturally, for a first half of works by Couperin, J.S. and C.P.E. Bach. The 26th ordre from Couperin’s Fourth Book was no warm-up, Esfahani showing himself immediately at ease, with a lilting rubato that emerged from within the music – and, to a certain extent, the instrument too – rather than being applied to it. This first piece, ‘La Convalescente’, and the subsequent movements were all well characterised, without the slightest danger of falling into the all-too-precious caricatures which bedevil so much present-day Baroque performance. The expressivity of spread chords was a case in point; so was the sense of dramatic, even declamatory, unfolding, reminding us that we were not necessarily worlds away from the Classical drama of Corneille and Racine. The Gavotte and ‘La Sophie’ were guided by a propulsive, yet never restrictive, sense of rhythm; whatever the tempo, there was space to breath. ‘L’Epineuse’ seemed to afford a glimpse of the vocal Couperin, perhaps even of what an opera from his pen might have been, not that that precluded harmonic, developmental ‘involvement’ which was very much of the keyboard world. The final piece, ‘La Pantomime’, benefited from a harmonic grounding that took one back to a time when musicians just happened to be harpsichordists, rather than having invented an aggressive, ‘Early Music’, alleged revanchism; more than once I thought of George Malcolm.

Three Preludes and Fugues from Book One of the ‘48 followed. The D minor Prelude was very much a ‘prelude’ to what was to come, a fugue that danced without didacticism. A deeper, darker hue characterised the C-sharp minor Prelude, though it was yet recognisably of the same ilk. The stile antico opening to its fugue looked bark to a golden age of polyphony, not in a dreary quasi-archaeological sense, but as sustenance and, crucially, as inspiration. It was expressive and developmental, in keeping with, but not restricted by, the ‘Baroque’ period to which Bach stands in a far more complicated relationship than many care to realise. This was the Bach who inspired Mozart. A bright contrast of tonality and general mood came with the B major Prelude and Fugue, played with good humour, even a sense of fun. The F-sharp minor Toccata was rightly more exuberant, less innig, drawing upon earlier keyboard masters and their sense of Affekt and rhetoric. In a flexible account, the proximity to Bach’s early organ works was announced, the whole unfolding with great dramatic flair.

C.P.E. Bach offered a very different voice, already hinting at some of the keyboard music of Haydn and even Mozart, though the rhetoric is undeniably personal. In the B-flat Sonata, composer and performer offered a kaleidoscope of expression utterly distinct from Haydn’s thematic single-mindedness. Registration was perhaps especially telling during the slow movement, in which we heard an almost operatic dialogue at times. The finale was refreshingly bright and high-spirited. We returned to Emanuel Bach at the end. The opening flourish of the F-sharp minor Sonata was extrovert yet controlled: very German! Wrenching of mood was almost violent; ‘strangeness’ was neither smoothed out nor unduly exaggerated. The slow movement exhibited great metrical freedom, following an almost stream-of-consciousness approach: as, after all, does the score. Twists and turns, both melodic and harmonic, were savoured. The finale offered a nice contrast, emerging almost as an extended fantasia: part-way on the road to Mozart? Its conclusion came properly as a surprise.

Between the two C.P.E. Bach sonatas came a sonata by Georg Anton Benda and Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming. I am not sure that I can quite share Esfahani’s enthusiasm for Benda, at least on the basis of this piece, but there could be little doubt that he proved an able advocate. Benda offered a more overtly ‘Classical’ voice, though not without audible connection to the world of Emanuel Bach. The first movement of the sonata benefited from an excellent performative balance between stateliness and exuberance, but I missed a real sense of development. Perhaps, as Esfahani suggested in his note, that is an æsthetic choice on the composer’s part; perhaps, but is it a good choice? The slow movement was, however, nicely contrasted, and more consistent as a compositional whole, whilst the finale’s byways charmed rather than perplexed.

As in the case of other works I have heard by Takemitsu, I was not entirely convinced of the substance of Rain Dreaming. Nevertheless, in this context, and whilst it may be a stretch to call the piece toccata-like, or imbued with a Neue Empfindsamkeit, there did seem to be a post-C.P.E. Bach or even post-Benda quality to the writing: testimony to canny programming. It was attractive enough as contrast, if hardly Ligeti, let alone Bach. Messiaenesque figuration was for me the most intriguing feature. A first encore of the Rameau Gavotte which Klemperer orchestrated whetted the appetite for Esfahani’s forthcoming release later this year of the composer’s complete keyboard works.

Mark Berry

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