United Kingdom Scarlatti: Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 14.10.2022. (MB)
Scarlatti – Sonatas in F, Kk.296; in F, Kk.297; in F minor, Kk.466; in F sharp minor, Kk.25; in G minor, Kk.12; in C minor, Kk.11; in F, Kk.6; in F minor, Kk.19; in F, Kk.106; in F, Kk.107; in D minor, Kk.552; in D minor, Kk.553; in C minor, Kk.116; in G, Kk.470; in G, Kk.471; in E minor, Kk.263; in E, Kk.264; in A, Kk.24; in D minor, Kk.32
One of the first professional concerts I heard — it may even have been the first — was of Scarlatti sonatas on the harpsichord, at the suggestion of my childhood piano teacher, with whom I learned a good few along the way. I cannot now remember who the harpsichordist was and am not even sure of the venue; oddly, I think it may have been Rotherham’s Civic Theatre rather than the Arts Centre (part of a wonderful brutalist complex, since demolished, that included the town’s Central Library from where I borrowed many of my first books and, later, first musical cassettes and scores). Scarlatti loomed relatively large in the early repertoire I was occasionally allowed to try out on my teacher’s spinet. As soon, though, as I started organ lessons in my teens, my adoration for Bach somewhat crowded out contemporaries. Not that I have or had no interest in Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, Couperin, and many others, but I am reasonably sure I have never been to an all-Scarlatti recital since. I have no idea how I might react today to what I heard as a schoolboy in Rotherham — I assume I am not imagining the whole thing — but I can say that this immersive experience from Mahan Esfahani, performed without an interval, much of it without as much as a break between pieces, was quite a journey on which to be taken.
Over ninety minutes or so, with a couple of bonus D minor sonatas as encores, Esfahani’s selection covered a broad range, whilst still of course only encompassing a small proportion of Scarlatti’s output in this genre. (One might reasonably go so far as to call the Scarlatti sonata close to a genre in itself. It does not spring out of nowhere, nor does it lead to nowhere, but few if any binary forms are quite like it.) From the outset, we knew that this was music internalised, so that these performances, without a hint of the wilful, could in a positive sense be like no others. Freedom was not licence; rather, it offered a guiding thread that enabled a particular sequence of works to emerge in a particular way, with fresh performances that would have been otherwise in a different order, let alone a different day. For instance, in the first pair of works, in F major, harmonic rhythm that was allied to, yet never dictated by, metre was the frame for a relish in the composer’s obstinacy and graciousness alike: aristocratic in the best sense. As the recital progressed, repeated figures, sequences scales, ornaments and other building blocks emerged as characteristic, yet varied, nothing so mundane as a cliché. The illusion of dynamic contrast was conjured — except, of course, that it was not always an illusion.
A fascinating sequence of minor-key works communicated a proper sense of Affekt, quite distinct from later tonal understandings, associative or otherwise. Where I as a teenager had been tempted to the maudlin, here this music was brought to life, without any of the irritating, nonsensical reductionism of many so-called ‘Baroque’ musicians who would claim all music of the period is a dance. This is a world with as many options as ours, and so too it sounded here, whilst making the sum of those options more than the sum of its parts. Continuities and discontinuities, and the way they fit together, offered here and elsewhere courtly dignity and allure, and a fine sense of caprice. Crossing of hands, leaning appoggiaturas, agogic accents, fanfares that spoke of a world beyond the keyboard, and magical moments of suspense expertly punctured led towards a final sequence of sonatas that built in gravity and abandon, tempting us to think each one the last, until a successor twisted the screw a little further. Something darker, mysteriously Mediterranean characterised the final programmed work, the perfect response to its predecessor’s abandon. Programming and performance worked as one.