Concentu Mirabili! Mahan Esfahani at Wigmore Hall

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

It would be foolish of me to attempt to review harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s magical Wigmore Hall recital in detail, as I have neither the knowledge of the mechanics of the instrument nor familiarity with the repertoire to do justice his performance. I “dabbled” with the harpsichord while at school, playing continuo in a Baroque group, and now I occasionally play a friend’s instrument, more to attempt to understand some of Bach’s writing in pieces I am learning on the piano, than any serious commitment to the instrument. For years, I felt it was best left to early music and Baroque specialists.

I grew up listening to my parents’ LPs of Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations, and believed these were the benchmark against which all other interpretations of this mighty work should be set. However, in 2011, after reading about the young Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, I decided to take the plunge and review a harpsichord recital. In July 2011, at London’s elegant Cadogan Hall, a double debut took place: Mahan’s Proms debut and the first time ever a solo harpsichord recital was presented at the Proms. I called my review “Spellbound by Bach” because for the full hour of the concert that is the state in which Mahan’s playing put us. Credited with bringing the harpsichord “out of the closet”, Mahan’s approach captivated and enthralled. He made the instrument – and the music – appear modern, newly-wrought.

So, when I and the friend who owns the harpsichord rocked up at the Wigmore on Friday night I knew we were in for an exceptional evening of music.

The pieces by Byrd drew inspiration from dances and songs, some toe-tapping and rousing, others stately and elegant, and religious texts, written by a composer living in a country poised on the cusp of change, as England sloughed off the Middle Ages and stepped confidently into the Renaissance. Some of the works were delicate, fleeting, poignant, others proud and courtly. All were beautifully presented, Mahan highlighting the subtleties of sound and touch possible on the instrument. During a pause in the performance, Mahan talked engagingly about Byrd’s importance in the canon of English music, and the forward-pull of his compositional vision. I was struck, not for the first time on hearing Mahan, at the range of tone, colours and moods he was able to achieve with the instrument.

After the interval, a selection works by Bach from the ‘Musical Offering’, a collection of canons and fugues and musical “riddles” which Bach composed in response to a challenge from Frederick the Great (and to whom they are dedicated). A three-part fugue and a six-part fugure (Ricercars) and a “Canon in tones” showed Bach at his most esoteric, teasing and “modern”, which set the scene nicely for, what was, for me, the highlight of the evening – the complete harpsichord music of Gyorgi Ligeti, which recalls Renaissance and Baroque models (the Passacaglia and Chaconne).

Again, Mahan introduced the works, explaining that in the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the harpsichord and early music were considered dangerously reactionary and composers and musicians were not permitted to write for or play the harpsichord. (Interestingly, a number of key modern composers and champions of the harpsichord are from former Eastern Bloc countries.) Mahan then explained that the second harpsichord on the stage was a rather special instrument, a modern harpsichord with nine pedals, a kind of “prepared piano” of the harpsichord world, capable of some extraordinary, other-worldly, sounds – amply demonstrated by Mahan in his performance of the works by Ligeti.

The Passacaglia Ungherese was redolent of the falling figures and ground basses of the music of Bach and his contemporaries; by contrast, Continuum was a fleeting sonic flurry, its strange sound-world recalling an alarm, breaking glass, an angry mosquito. (Ligeti used the harpsichord for this piece because the rapid speed would be almost impossible to achieve on the heavier action of piano.) To close, Mahan played Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock, a tour de force of rhythm and sonic textures suggesting the plucked sound of a modern guitar. The basis of the work is a Chaconne, a set of variations over a pounding, repeating chord pattern (the basis for much jazz and rock music). It was an energetic – and energising – close to a stunning and unusual programme.

For an encore, a short work by Purcell: simple, elegant, perfect. Afterwards, we queued up the stairs to the green room of the Wigmore to congratulate Mahan on a truly miraculous evening of music making.

Mahan argues the case for a modern appreciation of the harpischord and its repertoire far better than I can. Read his guest blog for Gramophone here

My Meet the Artist interview with Mahan Esfahani (from 2012)

Review of Mahan Esfahani’s Prom’s debut