Mahan Esfahani’s Venturing Spirit Produces a Stimulating Recital

21/07/2016

Bull, Kalabis, D’Anglebert, Borup-Jǿrgensen, Saariaho, Kidane, and Scarlatti: Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord). Wigmore Hall, London, 19.7.2016. (MB)

John BullChromatic Pavan and Galliard, ‘Queen Elizabeth’s’
Viktor KalabisAquarelles, op.53
BullFantasia XII
Jean Henry d’AnglebertPièces de clavecin: selection
Axel Borup-Jǿrgensen – Tarocco, op.124
SaariahoJardin Secret II, for harpsichord and tape
Daniel KidaneSix Etudes (new version)
Scarlatti – Sonatas: in F major, Kk518; in G major, Kk259; in G major, Kk260; in A major and E major (Barcelona MS 1964 nos 34 and 31); in D minor, Kk516; in D minor, Kk517

One would be hard put to find a more varied programme from any instrumentalist today, or indeed in the past. It was indicative of Mahan Esfahani’s typically venturing spirit – and achievement – that this harpsichord recital, sadly my final visit to the Wigmore Hall of the 2015-16 season, was listed under both its Early Music and Baroque Series and its Contemporary Music Series. I think we can forgive him for the lack of Chopin and Liszt. Instead, we heard intriguing juxtapositions, the intent not, insofar as I could tell, didactic, but willing or, perhaps better, permitting the listener to make what connections and contrasts he or she would. Where unapologetically modernist artists such as Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Maurizio Pollini would more often than not present us with a guiding, almost Schoenbergian Idea behind a programme, Esfahani’s approach might be considered more post-modern, which is not in any sense to imply unconsidered, far from it.

What a joy it was to start with John Bull, whose waywardness clearly attracts Esfahani. The Chromatic Pavan and Galliard seemed almost to look forward to Purcell, albeit with a knack for surprising one that made me think not so much of English contemporaries or successors, but of Gesualdo. (Would that we had more keyboard music from him!) There was great flexibility to the performance, but flexibility with reason that always announced itself. Both dances seemed to gather up complexity as they developed – in a fashion that, doubtless fancifully, put me in mind of Schoenberg and his school. Viktor Kalabis’s Aquarelles, which I had also heard Esfahani play at a Milton Court recital a little more than a year ago, opened with an intriguing hint of Poulenc (the Concert champêtre), but developed – that word again – in a very different way. There was perhaps more than a hint of Shostakovich to the second, marked ‘Andante’; what struck me, though, more than any mere correspondence, was the sense conveyed of what lay between and beneath the notes. There was an intimacy in the spareness of halting progress. The third and final piece proved kaleidoscopic and adamant in its rhythm, in turns and also together. Bull’s Fantasia XII emerged from it as if a cousin, which then proceeded upon its own, highly virtuosic, wonderfully realised way.

Five pieces from Jean Henry d’Anglebert’s 1689 collection followed: a ‘Prélude’, an ‘Air d’Apollon du Triomphe de l’Amour,’ an ‘Air ancient: Ou estes vous allé,’ ‘Les Songes agréables d’Atys’, and the ‘Passacaille d’Armide’. The opening Prélude was gravely rhetorical, or should that be rhetorically grave? And yet, it sounded full of light and shade. The airs were sung gracefully, kinship and differentiation both perceptible. The Lully ‘Passacaille’ was imbued with proper grandeur and impetus, which yet proved capable of more tender yielding.

The first half closed with two pieces of what we might consider to be Scandinavian modernism. First was Axel Borup-Jǿrgensen’s Tarocco. Its twists, turns, and above all, guiding thread were communicated with a winning sense of adventure. Logic and fantasy were revealed not so much as in competition but as two sides of the same musical coin. Kaaija Saariaho’s Jardin Secret II I found harder to get on with, but the fault may well have been mine. It opened in almost concertante fashion, but the relationship between harpsichord and tape seemed to be in a state of constant, or at least continuing, flux. Some of the rather strange electronic noises – the work was written using IRCAM technology – puzzled me in themselves, but that was perhaps the point. I was delighted, in any case, to have the opportunity to hear such music – music, I must admit, I had not even known existed, and which the ‘Early Music’ crowd would not touch with an authenticke bargepole.

A new version of Daniel Kidane’s Six Etudes, an earlier version given in that 2015 recital, opened the second half. Before looking at the programme, I was struck by the varying transformative techniques running throughout these six beautifully crafted miniatures. I was then delighted – and relieved – to see the composer’s own reference to an ‘inbuilt transformative aspect [which] also adds a playful nature to the pieces’. That was certainly how it sounded here, particular ‘problems’ set up – as is traditional with a ‘study’ – and explored within certain restrictive parameters. Cellular is probably not quite the right word – I have had no opportunity to read the score – but I am not sure that it was entirely the wrong word either. And yes, it was great fun to welcome back the hotel reception bell, wryly described by Kidane as ‘an external pitch’, in the sixth piece.

Finally, we heard several sonatas by Scarlatti. That in F major, Kk518, offered characteristic insistence but also variety of figuration, clearly, meaningfully brought out in performance. The turn to the tonic minor was splendidly, even heartrendingly, inward in quality. G major (Kk 259 and 260) proved warmer and, in the first sonata, perhaps gentler, also, I think, more exploratory. The second of those two sonatas offered relatively extrovert contrast, surprising both harmonically and melodically; Esfahani proved an expert judge, moreover, of its rhetoric. The two sonatas from a Barcelona manuscript, discovered by Barry Ife, may well have been receiving their modern premieres. They sounded very much as a pair here, their different key signatures notwithstanding: contrast and kinship, as in earlier works in the recital, were both apparent and to be questioned. There were, even by Scarlatti’s standards, some striking disjunctures to be relished in the E major sonata. The D major Sonata, Kk516, seemed at times to evoke the world of John Bull in its manner, at least before highly contrasting material took it along a quite different path. It struck a note of melancholic relief, Esfahani, having heard some of its material performed by Spanish folk musicians, taking it at a significantly slower tempo than marked. Keyboard fireworks returned in the closing D minor work, Kk517. And then, it was time for another, charming surprise: a Richard Rodney Bennett encore, Little Elegy.

Mark Berry

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