A Cunning Blog

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Trills and pluck

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


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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Haydn Seek

Sorry. I couldn’t resist it. Silly Season. It’s just that every time I go to see an Australian Haydn Ensemble concert — and it’s getting more regular as I get more hooked on their particular brand of bounce — my husband comes up with a new ‘Haydn/hiding’ dad joke. There. I’ve done it now. Out of my system.

Anyway, back to the Utzon Room and the last concert of the year for the afore-mentioned AHE, with guest director and soloist Erin Helyard. A big turn out, and a (relatively) big orchestra taking on the Sturm und Drang of the late eighteenth-century. Helyard describes the sturmunddrangers as the angry young men of their time, artists intent on shaking things up, scaring the horses.

440px-cpeb_by_lc3b6hrLooking at his stolid, white-wigged portrait, it’s hard to imagine CPE Bach as a renegade, but listening to his Harpsichord Concerto in F major, written in 1772, you get a whole new view. Especially when it’s played with the raw energy and punchy attitude of this ensemble. That’s not to say it’s at all lacking in polish: AHE have pulled their intonation and sound quality together dramatically over the last 18 months. Yesterday was the best I’ve heard them. The rawness was all deliberate, all in the performance. Led by Helyard at the keyboard, the ensemble gave us CPE’s concerto in all its edgy, obstinate difference. No, let’s not finish that phrase, even though a hundred years of harmony is begging for it. Yes, let’s hang onto that note for a bit longer. Even longer. Even though it’s sticking out like a sore thumb. As anyone who’s tried to un-learn a habit can confirm, it’s quite hard to play in a deliberately angular manner, without phrasing off, without vibrato to give that note a final polish. To do it consistently, and as an ensemble, is even harder, but the ensemble brought out all the delicious oddness. Meanwhile, Helyard added lashings of spidery virtuosity at a fearless but never rushed pace.

Before that, CPE’s Flute concert Wq. 22 in D minor, an earlier work, and less torrid but, in the hands of soloist Melissa Farrow, no less compelling. Farrow has a way of making the end of her phrases hang in the air, ready to connect with the next idea, ready to build into one splendid arc, like a brilliantly written novel that you can’t put down. It also helps that  the sound coming from ‘Blondie’, her natural boxwood flute, a Martin Wenner copy of an August Grenser original, is unfailingly lovely.

Book-ending the concert, two ‘sinfonia’, one from CPE and one from Papa Haydn.  La passione, as Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 is known, brought everything good about the performance so far together: the sustained, mind-spanning phrases, the mercurial mood swings and the impressively consistent quality of sound. Even through the intensity of the first movement there was a wiry tension, a momentum and once they hit the allegro spirituoso the motor rhythm powered on through with an invigorating vitality. One of those moments when you think 2016’s not all bad.

Many thanks to the Australian Haydn Ensemble for inviting me. If you like my blog, please support my book, crowdfunding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary! A pledge would be wonderful. I also accept social media shares, spreading the news by word-of-mouth, best wishes and chocolate.