This is the year of CPE Bach, the tercentenary of the birth of the fifth son of JS, and this anniversary is being marked with performances, recordings and appreciations of his music worldwide.
This is also the year of Mahan Esfahani, the young Iranian harpsichordist, now resident in the UK, who has been credited with bringing the harpsichord “out of the closet” and making this instrument, the pre-eminent symbol of the Baroque period, accessible and exciting and proving that the harpsichord has an important position in contemporary music making.
I first encountered Mahan Esfahani via Norman Lebrect’s Slipped Disc blog and, my interest piqued, heard Mahan perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Cadogan Hall as part of the 2011 Proms. This was a double first – Mahan’s Proms debut and the first solo harpsichord recital in the Proms history. The performance was fresh, thrilling and insightful, revealing many of the gems of Bach’s writing not always highlighted by other performers, either on harpsichord or piano.
Since then, Mahan’s star has been ascending rapidly, evidenced by a busy international concert diary, including participation in this yaer’s Aldeburgh Festival, appearances on BBC Radio 3, and an acclaimed recording of CPE Bach’s Wurttemberg Sonatas for Hyperion. In addition, Mahan is a sharply intellectual musician who is not afraid to challenge the dogmas of the early music movement and who likes to draw his own conclusions about aspects such as interpretation and performance practice from his studies of period sources, and collaborations with modern instrument players to recreate the sonic world of earlier music.
Mahan’s witty and relaxed stage manner combine with his intelligence and musical insight, resulting in recitals with a magnetic appeal which prove that far from an instrument capable of producing “one sound”, the harpsichord is vibrant, colourfully nuanced, expressive and highly textural. From the melancholic arabesques of Couperin to the dramatic bravura and declamatory statements of the young JS Bach’s Toccata in F# minor BWV910 to the graceful soundscape of Takemitsu (an inspired inclusion), this was a concert which fizzed and sparkled.
Those of us more used to hearing piano recitals at the Wigmore need a few moments to “tune in” to the sound of the harpsichord. It speaks more quietly, inevitably, because of its size, but the special acoustic of the Wigmore Hall seems just about ideal for this instrument. Add to this an audience which, by and large, listened most attentively, creating a highly engaging and absorbing concert.
In addition to the works by Couperin, JS Bach and Takemitsu, there were two Sonatas by CPE (“Emmanuel”) Bach, written while his father was still alive. Dedicated to Emmanuel’s employer, the newly-crowned Prussian King Frederick II, these sonatas reveal a composer working within a musical landscape which was poised on the cusp of change and display the remarkable forward-pull of Emmanuel’s creative impulse in the use of texture, dissonance, rapid changes of mood, rhetoric and wit, music which looks forward to Haydn and Beethoven. For the purposes of comparison, Mahan also included in his programme a sonata by Georg Anton Benda, a Bohemian disciple of Emmanuel. More sparely scored, it lacked the immediate “shock value” of Emmanuel’s writing, yet included many distinctive facets – drama and tension, a recitative-like slow movement and a spirited finale – and was performed with great elegance and sensitivity.
On first glance, Rain Dreaming by Toru Takemitsu may seem an odd choice in a programme dedicated to Baroque and early classical music, but the piece worked well, providing an interesting contrast and a pause for reflection. There were echoes of Emmanuel’s unexpected dissonances and Couperin’s poetry within Takemitsu’s writing , yet the work is also highly lyrical in its explorations of tonality.
This was a concert of bravura playing, combined with wit and intelligence to create a thoroughly engaging concert, which challenged pre-conceived notions about the harpsichord and the music of the Baroque and Rococo periods. Mahan’s entertaining and informative introduction (given after the Couperin) and his interesting and quirky programme notes (in which he described Frederick II as an eighteenth-century “hipster”) undoubtedly contributed to a most enjoyable and imaginative evening of music making. Highly recommended.
(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)