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

Bridget Cunningham

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

Being around other musicians and performing live music from childhood at home, in the church, at music schools and with good teachers inspired me to be a musician. Performing music has always been where I feel most comfortable, and the actual process of communicating with others through music lifts the spirits. When conducting from the harpsichord, the sound of the other instruments in the orchestra and singers around hits the soundboard of the harpsichord which becomes a melting pot where all these sounds go in and magic is made.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing and conducting?

The most important influence is the music itself from the emotional and dramatic works of Handel, the energy of Vivaldi, the complexity of Bach and Palestrina, the freshness of Mozart, the complex rhythms of Messiaen, the richness of Wagner and much more, have always inspired and influenced me to learn more.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The biggest challenge has always been to get funding to put on undiscovered early operas, pasticcios, masses, and other works and material I have researched and to record this material which really deserves a hearing. It is also a learning curve to get the means to make documentaries and films about this music, the history of it and the whole process of music making, which are all fascinating aspect

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I have just recently conducted a recording for a CD of stunning music, some unrecorded material too which I am pleased about, from the 18th century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with London Early Opera, and fabulous producer Chris Alder, which I am eagerly waiting to hear. It was a wonderful process finding the music and putting it all together to recreate a magical night at the gardens.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

I have many and love the variety I have performed in from large to the more intimate, including Southwark Cathedral, the Wigmore Hall, Handel House Museum, St George’s Basillica in Gozo, St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, the Pieta in Venice and Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have always loved conducting Handel operas, Purcell masques, Vivaldi and Mozart operas.. they are all colourful with amazing text, word painting and harmonies. Conducting from the harpsichord centres me with the music in the very heart of the orchestra and the actual score of the work being performed. Again, I enjoy all the later repertoire I conduct from George Butterworth to Bernstein as it is all fabulous repertoire which I enjoy listening to as well.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Barenboim, McKerras, Brabbins, Hogwood, Alsop, Davies, Edwards, many conductors; also the historic Bernstein, and several baroque musicians… Catherine Mackintosh, Robert Woolley… where do we stop…the list goes on…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Performing Vivaldi in the Pieta in Venice… an amazing place and also listening to Jordi Savall playing French divisions in his viol concert at St Nicholas Church in Galway by candlelight was extremely inspiring

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

Every new day there is something new to learn and we are always students and must always be open to gaining new knowledge and to aspire to new things. Keep on focusing on where you are going and work hard and practice, practice….

What are you working on at the moment?

I am collating music, parts and scores and taking sectional rehearsals for the next recording project that I am conducting with London Early Opera and following concert tour next year.

What is your most treasured possession?

My glorious harpsichords: one is a double manual Franco Flemish Blanchet copy of a Ruckers – perfect for all kinds of repertoire with a lovely resonance in the bass – and the other is a single manual Italian harpsichord with a real brightness of sound and touch.


Bridget Cunningham is a prizewinning harpsichordist, conductor and early music specialist. Bridget is in demand to conduct choirs, orchestras, festivals and recordings throughout Europe and her performing experience includes conducting London Early Opera and Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi and she conducts regularlyfrom the harpsichord at venues such as St Martin-in-the Fields, Grosvenor Chapel, St James’s Piccadilly and Southwark Cathedral. She has recently recorded a harpsichord album ‘Handel in Ireland’ and performed as a solo harpsichordist to Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. She also regularly gives lecture recitals and broadcasts at Art Galleries and last year she opened the Watteau exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and gave a lecture recital on Handel and Watteau in 18thCentury London. She has recorded and presented BBC documentaries with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment and Vivaldi’s Women and the virginal and harpsichord music for the BBC 1 series ‘Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen’, How London Was Built and BBC’s ‘Messiah’. Radio broadcasts include Radio 3 and 4 King James’s Bible. Bridget has also just conducted London Early Opera’s CD Handel in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens with producer Chris Alder.

www.bridgetcunningham.org.uk