Jennifer Pike (image credit Eric Richmond)

A dramatic and absorbing concert of “limitless possibilites”, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, given by three young performers who demonstrated great insight and maturity in their approach to the music. Read my full review here.

Christina Pluhar (image credit © Marco Borggreve)

Early music and Baroque crossover ensemble l’Arpeggiata, under the direction of theorbo player Christina Pluhar, gave a five-star performance of toe-tapping Tarantellas, jazzy improvisations, and soulful songs in their Proms debut at Cadogan Hall. Read my full review here

 
The concert opened with this Ciaccona by Cazzati:

Mahan Esfahani, harpsichordist (photo credit: © BBC / Marco Borggreve)

Who or what inspired you to take up the harpsichord, and make it your career?

I think it’s impossible for people involved with the harpsichord to deny the influence of Wanda Landowska (1879-1959). Landowska was the first to make the modern concert stage take it seriously, and, quite frankly, I wonder whether successive generations did plenty to kill the goodwill of the public that she had so painstakingly engendered. Her command, her confidence, her authority, her drama, her understanding of what a plucked string means – she is why I am here. I guess you could say that the decision to take it full on and make a career out of it had a bit to do with latent adolescent rebellion against parents who loved the Romantic repertoire…

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

Probably my playing as a soloist has been most influenced by a lot of the orchestral recordings I grew up with. Otto Klemperer’s readings of the Bruckner and Beethoven symphonies go to the very depths of each piece without resorting to any formulae or cliches. Nikolaus Harnoncourt shows that it is possible to be historically-informed and yet not resign oneself from the messy business of artistic licence and an aesthetic principle.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

You would think that my answer would have something to do with the mainstream not taking the harpsichord seriously. I won’t say that hasn’t been a challenge, but so far the biggest challenge has come from fighting the dogmatism, ignorance, sensationalism, inability to embrace change, increasing emphasis on a star system at the expense of actual music, and general intellectual laziness of the so-called world of historical performance.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I’m proud (if that can be the word – delighted, happy?) when someone says to me that I can make the harpsichord sing. That’s me at my best – not fast fingers, not certain effects, but just the idea of the instrument singing and, might I add, speaking.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Where the spirit of the composer descends and in an act of transubstantiation inhabits our ears, our minds, our hearts, and, occasionally, my fingers (if I’m lucky), that’s the best place.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I like to perform whatever is in front of me at the moment! To listen to, there’s nothing better for me than one of the Bach Cantatas, or Haydn’s Creation. Lately I have been listening to Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit on repeat; how can anyone write such a beautiful melody? I have to admit that I like salon music very much – Quilter, Sullivan, and all that. I recently heard Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet – it’s a work of genius!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Sviatoslav Richter. He is like a bear at the piano – always struggling, fighting, taking risks, thinking out loud. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and it is always imparting his special genius. I always try hear and study everything by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To aspiring musicians, I can only say: focus only on your music and the quality of your execution and your message, and the rest will come. You will come into contact with a lot of young ‘musicians’ who think they need to dress the part, attend nice parties, and in general fit some sort of silly expectation of what artistry means, and I’m afraid it usually has to do with the bank of Mummy and Daddy. This is all nonsense. These people don’t believe in their musicianship. Even if you are destitute on the street and haven’t two coppers to rub together, you will always have your music, and that is more valuable than anything.  I know a lot of voices say otherwise, but, really, trust me on this.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a very interesting harpsichord transcription of Bach’s A-minor Solo Sonata BWV 1004; it may have been made by one of his sons or, in all probability, by his student and son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol. I’ve also just gotten my teeth into another marvellously fiendish concerto by C.P.E. Bach.

What is your most treasured possession?

Right before I left university, my mentor George Houle gave me two very special things as parting gifts. One was a small booklet with a cover reading, ‘the Dolmetsch Concerts,’ which contains the various dates and programmes for a set of concerts performed by Arnold Dolmetsch and his family in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century. These were amongst the first performances of music on period instruments ever attempted in the United States, and so it’s very precious. Dr. Houle also gave me a turquoise bolo tie, a piece of American Western fashion which I think is now rather passé – this belonged to Landowska’s American student Putnam Aldrich, who later went on to found the early music programme at Stanford. It’s a nice connection to those pioneers who started this whole movement, and for some reason the bolo tie in particular reminds me of my university years in California, which were very happy and eye-opening in every respect.

Mahan Esfahani’s biography

Review of Mahan Esfahani’s Proms 2011 performance of the Goldberg Variations

My reviewing job for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to attend many more concerts than I used to, and I am at the Southbank at least as frequently as I am at the Wigmore Hall these days.

Each venue has its own audience, with its own quirks and foibles. The Wigmore audience is famously high-brow – or at least would like to be regarded as high-brow – elderly and “north London” (the hall is often nicknamed ‘The North London Concert Hall’). Members of the audience are expected to sit in reverential silence, to know when to clap, and to generally behave impeccably. I have twice been asked to remove my watch at the Wigmore because “the tick is too loud”. Sometimes, if a member of the audience coughs too much, or fidgets, or – Heaven forfend! – rustles a programme, they will be met with fierce looks and angry, hissed “shusshings”. It is therefore always interesting to see who has turned out for a more unusual or adventurous concert programme, or a young performer debuting at the Wigmore (“doing a Wigmore” as it is known in the trade). At Di Xiao’s recent debut, the audience were younger, many were fellow Chinese, and my friend and I also spotted quite a few musical “slebs” including cellist Julian Lloyd-Weber. The presence of such “slebs” may suggest that these people know something we don’t, or that the soloist is “one to watch”. Last summer, at a charming and touching Chopin concert with readings, organised by pianist Lucy Parham, one couldn’t move for theatrical lovies: both the Fox’s, Martin Jarvis, Timothy West and Prunella Scales, to drop but a few names. Stephen Hough tends to attract young, mostly gay, acolytes, and if Till Fellner is performing, you can almost guarantee to see his teacher, Alfred Brendel in the front bar. As a member of the ‘press pack’ now, I often arrive at a concert to find the venue has put all the journos together (excellent seats at RFH and QEH, right at the back at the Wigmore), and we all scribble away trying not to read what our neighbour has written, just like being back at school!

The audience at Cadogan Hall is different. Stepping into the champagne bar there’s always a great buzz of chat and shouts of laughter, enough to suggest that this audience is likely to be younger, more awake and maybe more receptive to what they are about to hear. Audiences on the Southbank are generally younger, more trendy, more relaxed, while the Proms audience is different again – a real mixture of music afficionados, groupies, students, curious tourists, old timers who go year after year and people who are just beginning to explore the great annual music festival. The enthusiasm of the Proms audience is really infectious and undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of the Proms this summer.

Sometimes the soloist or musicians themselves can affect the way the audience responds and behaves during a concert. At Maria Joao Pires’s wonderful Schubert series at the Wigmore a few years ago, the musicians (the Brodsky Quartet and singer Rufus Muller) remained on the stage while Pires played her solo pieces (a selection of Schubert’s Impromptus) and the audience was asked not to applaud until the end of the first half. This created a wonderful sense of an intimate, shared event, and we might have been in Schubert’s salon, enjoying an evening of music making amongst friends, for friends.

But if we, the audience, are too much in awe of the soloist, we can put up invisible barriers which can affect the atmosphere in the concert hall. This was very apparent when I heard Daniel Barenboim perform as part of his Beethoven Piano Sonatas series some years ago.

Recently, I’ve attended and performed in informal concerts in other people’s homes. My husband likes these kinds of concerts, with wine and friends and chat between pieces. As he rightly points out, this is a much more natural way of enjoying music that was written before c1850 (when Liszt, almost single-handedly, made the concert into the event as we know it today), and reminds us that music is, above all, for sharing. With the increasing popularity of presenting music in more unusual and intimate venues like The Red Hedgehog or Sutton House (London), or in the beautiful library of the cloisters in Wittem (Belgium), musicians are able to bring music much closer to the audience, literally and metaphorically, while events such as Speed Dating with the OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) offer audiences the chance to meet the musicians after the performance.

Audiences Behaving Badly

Some other small venues:

Woodhouse Copse, near Dorking, Surrey

Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, Walton, Surrey

Guildford Guildhall, Surrey

The Forge, Camden, London

Rook Lane Arts Centre, Frome, Somerset

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Mahan Esfahani captivated with a magical performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Cadogan Hall today, in the first Chamber Prom of the season, and the first ever solo harpsichord recital in the history of the Proms. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here

 

During the opening measures of the famous chorus, members of the audience glanced around anxiously, checking to see who would be first to rise to their feet. Then someone in the balcony stood, and someone else, and suddenly the whole of the Cadogan Hall audience rose to its feet, as is traditional for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus.

The reasons for this tradition are somewhat apocryphal: one version is that at the first London performance in 1743, the audience “together with the King”, were so moved by the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus that they spontaneously rose to their feet. An alternative explanation is that King George II was so tone-deaf that he thought the performance had finished, and the orchestra was playing the National Anthem: once the King stood, everyone present was obliged to stand too. Whatever the reason, there is something really special about standing for such an uplifting and triumphant piece of music.

For me the ‘Messiah’ will forever be associated with the beginning of the Christmas season. When I was at school, it formed an integral part of the concert which ended the Autumn term, along with the service of nine lessons and carols at the church next to the school. I must have sung the ‘Messiah’ at least 10 times, for the tradition of performing it at Christmas continued when I joined the university choir.

It’s four years since I last heard the Messiah, also at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue close to London’s Sloane Square, which boasts a spacious crush bar where one can get a decent-sized glass of Prosecco. The audience is different to the Wigmore, being largely fully awake, alive and lively. People-watching is fun beforehand and I spotted a couple of “slebs” in the noisy bar as I waited for my friend to return from the cloakroom. The other benefit of Cadogan Hall is its generous, comfortable seats, and the gently raked auditorium which affords a good view wherever you sit. The hall itself is a converted Christian Science church, completed in 1907, though the interior suggests a more 18th century heritage. Much of the original interior has been retained including a fine wooden screen and balcony at the rear of the stage. Last night, a tall Christmas tree sparkled from the balcony.

The English Chamber Orchestra with the Rodolfus Choir and four soloists was under the baton of eminent and now very elderly conductor Raymond Leppard. I remember seeing him conduct when I was a child, and it was lovely to see he is still going strong, if a little more portly than I remember, and somewhat unsteady on his feet. Under his direction, orchestra and choir were impeccable: perfect timing, perfect cadences, perfect intonation. The soloists, two of whom I have seen before in the same roles, were very fine, offering just the right balance of acting and emotion, while also “telling the story” of the music very clearly. From row D, the closest I have sat to the stage at a concert for some time, we were afforded a wonderful view of the orchestra, soloists and choir. I loved the way the continuo player switched from harpsichord to chamber organ and back again, as the score required.

The Rodolfus Choir is made up of singers aged 16 to 25 and their youthful voices suited the music perfectly. The clarity and purity of their delivery was matched by the orchestra with an elegant symmetry.

I suppose the best thing about the Messiah is all the memorable ‘tunes’ – from ‘Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted’ to ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, ‘I Know My Redeemer Liveth’ to the charming duet between tenor and alto ‘O Death Where is Thy Sting’. Then there are the choruses: ‘And the Glory of the Lord’, ‘All We Like Sheep’, ‘For Unto Us a Child is Born, ‘Hallelujah’, and the wonderful, life-affirming fugue of the final chorus. In between all this are some beautiful solos, and orchestral interludes. Handel brings the text, drawn from the King James Bible, to life with light and shade, storms and sunshine, fugue and counterpoint, and a huge variety of textures and “word painting”, the technique of having the melody mimic the literal meaning of the libretto.

It was a wonderful evening and a lovely start to the festive season. I felt very Christmassy as I left the hall with my friend, and we drove around Sloane Square, which was beautifully decorated, with great bunches of fairy lights in the trees, and a shimmering curtain of lights all down the main frontage of Peter Jones.

Cadogan Hall