Bach, Scarlatti, d’Anglebert and the Quickness of Decay

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   D’Anglebert, J.S. Bach, D. Scarlatti:  Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 11.11.2011 (GPu)

d’Anglebert: Tombeau de M. de Chambonierres
Bach: Partita III in A minor, BWV 827
Scarlatti: Sonata in C, K 132; Sonata in B-flat, K349; Sonata in D, K 436

A lunchtime recital by the outstanding young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani – the first player of the instrument to be chosen as a BBC New Generation Artist – provided an opportunity to admire the poetic quality of his interpretation of some marvellous music and (since this was the first recital to be given on this particular instrument) to admire one of the Welsh College of Music and Drama’s recent acquisitions. Let’s take the instrument first. It is the work of Alan Gotto, a maker based in Norwich, a two-manual instrument based (I think) on an early eighteenth-century instrument by Pierre Donzelague and possessing a sound that Gotto has nicely described as ‘Flemish with a French accent’. Right across its range the sound is splendidly clear but attractively coloured. The instrument is, as a bonus, beautifully presented and decorated, not the least of its visual attractions being Colin White’s adapted copy (adapted to fit the shape) of one of Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s paintings of Cardiff Castle on the interior of the lid.

Esfahani began his recital with Jean-Henry d’Anglebert’s Tombeau de M. Chambonnieres, an exquisite tribute to the composer’s master, by turns elegiac and celebratory, alternately simple and elaborately ornamented. Esfahani’s reading of the work had a lovely, unforced dignity to it and an expressive use of silence as well as some lovely colours. Was it only knowledge of the performer’s Iranian origins that made one think, at times, of the sound of the santour, the Persian hammered dulcimer? Perhaps so, but even without any such associations, this was a thoroughly poetic interpretation, refined and elegant yet heart-felt. In a fine programme note (modestly titled ‘A Few Remarks’), Esfahani wrote of “the quick decay in harpsichord timbre”, the speed with which its notes diminish to silence, and observed that “perhaps the greatest music for the harpsichord is indeed that which evokes death or loneliness”. D’Anglebert’s Tombeau certainly exploits the instruments intrinsic affinity with the apprehension of mutability, but it also finds means to hold on, in art, to that which has been lost in life. Loss and remembrance were equally evident in this fine performance.

Bach’s response to a world of ‘quick decay’, to the insubstantial material world of human life, can sometimes involve a certain embracing of the ephemeral – implicit in the ‘Galant’ dimension of some of his music. But ultimately Bach’s music transcends the ephemeral, replacing it, as it were, or translating it perhaps, into an image of a spiritual reality that feels eternal, and which Bach’s faith certainly intended as an image of a realm that was more than merely worldly. This, as Esfahani pointed out, is often true of Bach’s ostensibly secular works – works with no explicit Christian affinities. When, in 1731 Bach published his six partitas the title-page offered them as “Keyboard Practice consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, / Minuets and other Galanteries, Composed for Music-Lovers for the refreshment of their Spirits”. We need to be aware that when Bach talks of the “refreshment of the Spirits” he is not talking of music simply as a kind of mood-therapy. Elsewhere, after all, he declared that “the final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the spirit.” The Third Partita begins with a strictly written two-part invention, which Esfahani played with great clarity of line, the interplay of voices profound in its implications; the ensuing Allemande had a cogent, yet introspective, elegance while the Italianate Corrente had a more ‘worldly’ energy. The magnificent Sarabande, its opening played with great tenderness, was full of noble melancholy, as if the undeniable beauties of the world had to be seen only as passing and their temptations resisted. The Burlesca is altogether more robust and Esfahani’s playing effectively articulated its very physical energies as it did the edgy rhythms of the Scherzo. The closing fugal Gigue had a fitting sense of the remorseless (but fascinating) working out of formal implications, of a conclusion approached and earned, even if the very final bars surprise the listener.

“All poems might be bound in one book under the title of Paradise Lost. And the only object of writing Paradise Lost is to turn it, if only by a magic and momentary illusion, into Paradise Regained”. The words are G.K. Chesterton’s and they are sentiments that have an aptness to many of Scarlatti’s best sonatas – attempts, as they surely are, to hold on to the fleeting moment, to stave off life’s “quick decay” in, paradoxically, an artistic medium which cannot – in a sense – help but speak of mutability and decay. But these sonatas do achieve that “magic and momentary illusion” of which Chesterton speaks, in which ‘moments’ seem to be made ‘eternal’. Memories of both Naples and Spain, of his own earlier music and that of his father, and, of course, memories of much else too, seem to inform these sonatas, many of them written late in the composer’s life. In K 132 there are figurations strongly reminiscent of the Spanish guitar in music of lyrical melancholy and some unexpected modulations; in K 349, Esfahani suggested in his notes, there are allusions to “cannon-shots, to brash bursts of colour”; Sacheverell Sitwell heard K 436 as more Neapolitan than Spanish, though conceding that it strongly suggested “a band of guitars, though with no accompanying castanets”! Given that he played only three sonatas (I’d love to hear him play Scarlatti at greater length) Esfahani made an eloquent case for both the variety of manner and what one might call the varying profundity of Scarlatti’s achievement in this remarkable body of work. The flamboyance and the quieter subtlety, the extroversion and the complementary (and less obvious) innerness of the music were all on show, as were both the programmatic, pictorial quality of much of the writing and the formal and technical sophistication that is also typical of the music.

In various ways, then, this was a recital which negotiated the technical and poetic implications of “quick decay” very subtly and touchingly. Esfahani is a player with a distinctive poetic quality, which doesn’t just mean that he plays quietly! He plays with passionate expressiveness, is willing to take risks, to phrase melodic lines and place accents in ways that articulate the emotional as well as the formal substance of the music. Though thoroughly disciplined, this is not the somewhat detached playing that one hears from too many harpsichordists. His playing can seem at times to come from the fingers alone, at others from the whole body; there is an eloquent desire to communicate, to share with an audience, that is truly joyful. In this particular recital there were one or two minor misfingerings; but they were trivial, part, as it were, of the nature of live music-making and in no way detracted from a recital which demonstrated both Esfahani’s command of musical architecture and his subtle attention to detail.

Glyn Pursglove