Where to begin with Mahan Esfahani. Breathtaking? Hypnotic? Try gobsmacking. The young Iranian-American harpsichord virtuoso is all of these, and more. An intense, expressive presence at the keyboard, he’s also an exceptional communicator, whether via the music itself, in interview, or through the informative, wide-ranging ‘programme notes’ that he delivers live to enhance the understanding of sections of his recital. Known here for his award-winning recordings of Rameau and CPE Bach, Esfahani is equally passionate about contemporary repertoire. A rara avis on today’s early music scene, he earns a living as a solo harpsichordist entirely uncommitted to a particular ensemble and eschewing employment as a continuo player. Good for Brisbane Baroque, then, which had the smarts to present the Australian debut of this fascinating and multifaceted artist. And he didn’t disappoint either, in an absorbing, penetrating and passionate couple of hours that left the audience as breathless as the performer.
The cornerstones of Esfahani’s finely crafted programme were masterworks by JS and CPE Bach – a partita and a set of variations by the father, an earlyish sonata by the son. Contextualising these twin peaks of the repertoire were works by Frescobaldi, a rare Praeludium by Bach’s older brother Johann Christoph, a set of chorale variations by Pachelbel and a sonata by Jiří Antonín Benda, younger brother of the slightly better known František.
The Frescobaldi is as good a place to start to describe the impact of Esfahani’s playing. Even a simple work like the late-Renaissance master’s elegant Toccata Prima became a micro-drama, with sureness of touch and subtlety of detail drawing his audience in like a magnet. With Esfahani, every note has been considered before being carefully placed and weighed in the balance, but an overarching sense of structure allied to a spontaneity and expressive freedom ensures that nothing ever feels studied or contrived. In the paired Bergamasca, if the player didn’t exactly smile (in fact, at times his face conveyed almost the opposite), his playing wore a grin as broad as the Brisbane River, while the emotional rush of his rapid figurations were – I would imagine – the musical equivalent of a snort of cocaine.
Elsewhere, the placement of trills and decorations in the JC Bach were studied but full of life, nothing mathematical or mechanical here. The Pachelbel chorale variations on Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen (recognisable as the Anglican hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded) combined a spellbinding lyricism, allied with a keen sense of narrative purpose, in a form that can sometimes feel like a disparate exercise in joining the musical dots. His balancing out of the recurrent tune with the underlying divisions was textbook. The Benda, a sonata by a composer who spent 20 years playing alongside CPE Bach in Frederick the Great’s court orchestra, had some of his more famous colleague’s idiosyncrasies. Personable, yet by no means predictable, Esfahani brought out its easy going charm with some neat shifts of register in the slow movement and a zesty finale. If making a brittle instrument like the harpsichord sing is an art, then this is one 32 year-old well on the way to becoming an old master.
Before embarking on Bach’s Sixth Partita, Esfahani made an illuminating speech in which he admitted to having spent two-thirds of his life thinking about Bach, a relationship he likened to waking up next to a partner every day and realising that you are in love all over again. “It always feels like one is playing and hearing Bach for the first time,” he observed. His performance certainly captured many of those feelings, possessed of an inventive freshness and spirit of discovery. He could be convivial in the fugal subject of the Toccata, daring in the Prelude and Postlude, almost romantic in the Allemande and mercurial in the myriad syncopations of the Corrente – where smiling at last, his feet literally danced beneath the harpsichord. His intellectual probing deftly unknotted the final fugal Gigue, but it was in the Sarabande, where Esfahani commanded time to stand still, that he cast his spell and managed to fill an eternity with delicate touches of harmony and invention. The same composer’s Aria Variata ‘Alla Maniera Italiana’ was full of spry, winsome detail, played on an instrument perfectly selected to be beefy enough for Bach, yet slender enough to carry off Frescobaldi and Pachelbel.
Remarkably, the Sonata in G (WQ65/17) by CPE Bach was written while his father was still very much alive. Esfahani described Emmanuel as a “problem child” and you couldn’t help thinking of the son showing off his fashionable ways while slyly thumbing his nose at the expectations of the ‘family business’. The Fantasia-like first movement, with its capricious explorations of key thematic ideas, was ideal territory for Esfahani’s genius. His dramatic sensibilities, tempered by a sense of logical structure, meant that every pause, reverse and restart made perfect sense. Some judicious register switches added to the zany pleasures, as well as capturing a certain improvisatory quality, entirely appropriate in music by this most experimental of composers. There was a brief let-up as he slipped magically into the richly decorated slow movement, before the ups and downs of the cavorting finale brought things to an impulsive close.
This was a generous recital, topped off by some superb Rameau (the Gavotte from his A Minor Suite). Judging from conversations on the way out, I was not alone in feeling I’d witnessed something very special. Next month he records the Goldbergs – on this showing, that promises to be something else.
A Note for Harpsichord Buffs:
Mahan Esfahani played the QPAC Hubbard: a Franco-Flemish double-manual harpsichord after Ruckers/Taskin by Hubbard & Broekman, Boston 1985. It has the usual specification of an 18th-century French harpsichord: Two unison choirs, the one played from the upper keyboard plucking at the front (Front 8´) – so a more nasal sound than the Back 8´ on the lower keyboard, which plucks a slightly longer string further away from the end. There’s an octave register (4´) available on the lower. The upper keyboard remains independent, but can be coupled to the lower by pushing it in 12mm. There’s also the buff stop, which moves a row of leather pads against the back 8´ strings. muting out the upper harmonics. That was clearly heard in one of the partita movements, in accompaniment to the melody Mahan played on the upper. Carey Beebe