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Trills and pluck

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If you buy only one record of harpsichord music in your life — and that’s a decision I would have some sympathy with – buy this sensational album. The 30-year-old Iranian-American Mahan Esfahani has been making waves among connoisseurs for several years. Now he emerges as a superstar whose musicianship, imagination, virtuosity, cultural breadth and charisma far transcends the ivory tower in which the harpsichord has traditionally been placed.
Richard Morrison, The Times

2009-10-29-14-02-08

I heard Esfahani in concert once, at the York Early Music Festival in 2015. His figured bass realization was not up to the complexity of English and French music of the 17th and 18th centuries. I don’t mean he played wrong notes, which can happen to anyone; instead, the voice leading was incorrect and awkward, the chords were wrong, and the polyphonic textures were oversimplified. Let me be clear: this isn’t a judgement based on my personal taste, but a statement of objective mistakes.

Andreas Staier, harpsichord and fortepiano virtuoso, writing for Van

Mahan Esfahani polarises.

The Tehran-born, US-educated, Prague-based harpsichordist is riding a wave of acclaim; Deutsche Gramophon has signed him up and the Gramophone Award nominations are rolling in. He won the BBC Music Magazine’s “Newcomer of the Year” award in 2015, he’s professor of harpsichord at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and is the first person to give a solo harpsichord recital in the BBC Proms. He is a musicologist and a historian. He writes, speaks, plays. And as a good twenty-first century citizen of the world, he tweets, posts and gives great soundbite.

At the same time, he’s on the receiving end of some seriously pointy criticism for his technique, his choice of repertoire, his image, not to mention the interview cited above. Basically, for being who he is.

So who is Mahan Esfahani? Is he more objectionable than your average harpsichordist? And is he any good?

On the evidence of his Sydney debut, yesterday, in the Utzon Room, my answers are a/ don’t know yet, but want to find out, b/ quite possibly yes, because he’s not here just to blend into the continuo background, and c/ bloody oath yes. Note, this judgement is on the strength of being a listener rather than a musicologist or practitioner. I’m not a qualified HIP-ster. But if you were there to hear fabulous music played by a passionate, intelligent and highly-skilled performer, you would not have been disappointed.

He started out with a Bach Toccata and the first impression was of provocative instability. Not a lack of stability: a deliberate, designed instability, gravity off kilter. Some performers show off their technique with breakneck tempi or exaggerated articulation (and Esfahani freely admits he sometimes play fast to impress) but here it was the sense of invention and owlish fascination that carried the work.

By contrast, the Concerto in the Italian Style, BWV 971, was like returning home. As he explained in his lively pre-play chats, it’s a work he’s been playing since he was a child, and it was as if he met every note, every device with fondness and delight, like bumping into an old friend.

Esfahani’s repertoire ranges across periods not generally associated with the harpsichord. The twentieth-century, for example. Henry Cowell’s Set of Four was a new discovery for me. A bilious, swirling Rondo and angular Fugue felt like a different world, sonically, to the Bach, but Esfahani tucked into it with an equally impassioned commitment. And after the Italian Concerto, a mixed media work from Kaija Saariaho, Jardin secret II, played with notions of space and rhythm. I’ve talked about the amplification v. acoustic and the difficulty of losing directional sound before. Here, rather than setting up a fight between the two, Saariaho embraces it, to make an all-enveloping quadrophonic space derived from acoustic, computer-generated and pre-recorded noises. The harpsichord cuts through the sound waves with its tinny bite as soloist and sound artist bounce ideas of each other.

Esfahani brought out the heavy guns, in terms of virtuosity, to finish, playing Rameau’s Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin with punchy flair, followed by an encore of Scarlatti, laced with nutty trills. He’s hard to know, he’s potentially objectionable, but mediocre he ain’t.

Esfahani gives the premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s new Concerto for Harpsichord Ancient Letters with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on May 4, and a concert with Joseph Tawadros in the MSO’s Metropolis New Music Festival on May 6. Looking forward to hearing both!

 

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Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

2 thoughts on “Trills and pluck

  1. Yet one more article about Mahan Esfahani . . . and yet again we see that someone who is by no means an expert on harpsichord playing has chosen to sing his praises as a harpsichordist. And yet people who have devoted their lives to the study of the harpsichord and its repertoire have consistently pointed out that Esfahani’s playing is mediocre. One of those people is Andreas Staier, who is mentioned above. What this article fails to point out is that Andreas Staier is himself a universally acclaimed harpsichordist, celebrated WITHIN the harpsichord world as well as by music critics the world over. Staier has performed across Europe, the Americas and Asia, and has won numerous awards for his many recordings of a wide range of repertoire on both harpsichord and piano. He was also a member of the legendary ensemble, Musica Antiqua Cologne. So when Andreas Staier says that someone’s playing is ‘incorrect and awkward’ and the harmonies were ‘wrong’, we should all sit up and listen. It’s also worth noting that Staier is 61 and has absolutely no reason to feel threatened by a younger colleague, as he is so well established in his field.

    Ms Cunningham refers to Esfahani as a musicologist and historian. The harpsichord world does in fact have quite a few notable performers who are also accomplished musicologists. One should note, however, that Esfahani has no post-grad degree in either musicology or history (or in anything else). Esfahani has never published a single peer-reviewed article or monograph. He has made no musicological discoveries, and published no books, nor any scholarly editions. Contrast his claims to being a musicologist and historian with, for example, the late Christopher Hogwood, who performed and recorded as harpsichordist and conductor very widely, and whose scholarly publications are too numerous and varied to be summarized by me, but can be seen on this link:

    http://www.hogwood.org/index.html?page_sub_category_id=1

    Lastly, while it is correct to say that Esfahani was named Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Dance in London, it is worth pointing out that he is not the ONLY harpsichord professor on the faculty. (There are at least three others.) However, Esfahani is in fact the ONLY harpsichord professor at GSMD who has never had a single student, and to my knowledge has never given a single masterclass.

    Esfahani busies himself with self-promotion on social media, but many of us feel that he should devote more time towards trying to raise his musical skills to the standard of so many other performers active today. And if he wishes to become a musicologist, then he should apply himself towards a doctorate, as others have done, and undertake some serious musicological research. And, last but not least, we would all appreciate it if Esfahani would stop calling us ‘privileged’ or ‘racist’ or ‘orthodox’ simply because we point out his shortcomings.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve put in a link to Andreas Staier’s page. Mr Esfahani sure does polarise.

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