A Distinguished Harpsichord Recital by Mahan Esfahani


Tomkins, Gibbons, Scheidt, J. S. Bach, Jones, Kidane, Kalabis, and W.F. Bach: Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord). Milton Court, London, 27.4.2015 (MB)

Tomkins – Barafostus Dreame
Gibbons – Pavan in G
Scheidt – Also geht’s, also steht’s
J.S. Bach – English Suite in D minor, BWV 811
Patrick Jones – Santoor Suite
Daniel Kidane – Six Etudes (world premiere)
Viktor Kalabis – Akvarely, op.53
W.F. Bach – Sonata in E-flat major, Fk.5


The Guildhall’s recently appointed Professor of Harpsichord, Mahan Esfahani, gave an inaugural recital, his first at Milton Court, in music by composers ranging from the Elizabethan virginalists to the present day. An ‘English’ emphasis was unmistakeable; even Bach was represented by one of his English Suites, that in D minor. Far from that indicating any restriction, the hallmark of the recital was more variety, excellent performances throughout proving the guiding thread. In a typically engaging programme note, Esfahani wrote: ‘In English hands, the harpsichord truly came alive in all its guises – as a marvellously clear vehicle for counterpoint, as an effective imitator of whole ensembles and consorts, as an instrument of great sensuality as made possible by the confluence of various registers and harmonics naturally occurring in the sound made by a plucked string.’ Such was certainly what we seemed to hear on this occasion.

Thomas Tomkins’s variations on a broadside ballad, ‘Barafostus Dreame’ proved as ‘magnificent’ as was claimed in the performer’s note. Compositional and performing virtuosity sounded as one in a splendidly developmental account. Metre was subtly ‘bent’ on occasion, but always, it seemed, with a greater plan in mind, not for its own sake. Above all, there was a real sense of fantasy; it made sense as a performance in its own right, but also as the opening to a programme (perhaps rarer than one might expect). That characteristic ‘English’ melancholy which persists unto Birtwistle and beyond was certainly to be heard in the Orlando Gibbons Pavan. What sounded as if it were an infinitely flexible subdivision of the beat indicated a good deal of art concealing art – again both in work and performance. Samuel Scheidt’s seven variations on the German song, Also geht’s, also steht’s, offered a well-chosen staging-post on the way to Bach: a different voice, yes, even a different accent, but subtlety in technique that seemed also to offer continuation of a line.

Bach’s D minor English Suite completed the first half. In a short spoken introduction, Esfahani offered a way in to some of the composer’s complexities with a strikingly simple – in the best sense – demonstration of palindromic tendencies, both melodic and rhythmic. The opening Prelude initially resounded as if it announced Bach’s French inheritance – let us remember that a hallmark of earlier eighteenth-century German art, especially as understood by contemporaries, was its openness to different national ‘styles’ – but Bach’s undoubtedly Germanic legacy soon manifested itself ever more strongly. In the following Allemande and Courante, Esfahani struck a fine balance between phrases, paragraphs, and the whole, offering plenty of time, though never too much, for Bach’s music to speak in all its glory – and all its necessary complexity. The Sarabande’s proliferation seemed to this listener, doubtless partly on account of so much of his recent listening, to look forward to later Boulez. (If only we could hear some of the younger Boulez’s Bach performances!) The ‘busy’ quality of the first Gavotte was founded upon secure command of line, whilst the second benefited from typically imaginative yet idiomatic registration. The closing Fugue, perhaps in the light of my recently having heard Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, sounded as if a danse macabre. And of course, there were the inevitable labyrinthine presentiments of the Second Viennese School too. A well-shaped account throughout ensured that, once again, we heard that there is no composer less archaic than Bach.

There followed three very much more recent works, two from the twenty-first century, one from the twentieth. Patrick Jones’s Santoor Suite takes its cue, or at least a cue, from the composer’s study of south Indian raga, ‘specifically,’ according to Esfahani, ‘the “gat” (a cyclical, fixed melody)’. In its brief span, roughly five minutes in total, we heard an inventive response both to that world and indeed to the Baroque suite, a nicely, naggingly persistent Courante particularly striking to me on a first hearing. Daniel Kidane’s Six Etudes received their first complete performance. They definitely sounded as studies, for instance in the first piece’s treatment of repeated notes, the intervallic explorations of the second (and not just the second), and so on. A hotel reception bell made an appearance as duet partner (albeit operated by Esfahani’s foot) in the final piece.

Viktor Kalabis’s 1979 Akvarely (‘Aquarelles) seemed, again on a first hearing for me, almost to start, in its first movement, where Poulenc, in his Concert champêtre, had left off, and then, as it were, to run with whatever the composer had picked up. In this performance, I found it impossible to dissent from Esfahani’s view that this was most definitely music for the harpsichord, as opposed to ‘so much modern harpsichord music which seems like the word “piano” has simply been crossed from the title page’. The second piece revelled further in possibilities both musical and instrumental. At one point, it sounded almost as if a response to the celebrated solo in The Rake’s Progress.

Finally, there came a rare opportunity to hear a piece by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. I cannot say that I was entirely convinced, especially in the finale, by its stopping and starting: rhetorical, perhaps, but not with the mastery of the eldest son’s younger brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel. At any rate, this was a brilliantly ‘free’ performance, the slow movement at the work’s heart proving especially eloquent, indeed possessed of considerable harmonic depth.

Mark Berry


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