Friday, June 23, 2017

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani in a recital at the "See the Sounds" series at the Israel Museum

Mahan Esfahani. Photo: Miri Shamir (Moritz Daniel Oppenheim Marriage Portrait of Charlotte von Rothschild
"See the Sounds" is a unique classical festival taking place from May 29th to June 24th  2017 at the Israel Museum. Presenting soloists and ensembles from around the world, the concerts take place in the galleries, with each gallery venue chosen in keeping with the kind of music and each event preceded by a gallery tour to provide the broader context and make connections between visual and audial content. Featuring different genres and styles, from liturgical music to the Classical masters, to 20th century music and jazz, the festival aims to reflect the relevance of Jerusalem as a centre of European- and other culture. Directed by Daniel Kühnel, it is a collaboration between the Israel Museum and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Federal Republic of Germany). Iranian-born Mahan Esfahani's harpsichord recital on June 10th in the intimate venue of the Gallery of European Art was his first in Israel. No event could be more fitting to such a festival.

Esfahani opened with a Pavan by Welsh-born Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). Tomkins spent his creative life composing keyboard music (for both organ and virginals), some of it lost. Much of what survives was written in the last decade of his 84 years, resulting in one of the largest outputs in this style, only comparable in size to that of his teacher William Byrd. In highly ornamented playing of the adventurous, virtuosic text (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), Esfahani presented the Pavan's beguiling chromatic agenda, its poetry and its passion, as he created effective contrasts between the different sections. Here was a fine opportunity to experience the fantasy inspiring the keyboard music of the last of the English virginalists.

Remaining in England, Esfahani performed Giles Farnaby’s (1563-1640) “Woody Cock”, one of the composer’s 52 pieces appearing in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. In this  increasingly elaborate set of variations, based on a relatively simple English folk tune, one senses how Esfahani is enticed into exploring the character, mood and numerous ideas of each. Esfahani guided the listener through its six variations, entertaining the listeners with its contrasts, his stylishly smooth, relentless runs, the piece’s noble moments and its overall cumulative excitement - a true tour de force in which his playing never, however, loses sight of the work’s melodic content, shining through all textures.


We then heard Mahan Esfahani in a performance of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Sonata No.6 in E-flat major F5. Introducing the work, Esfahani referred to Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784) as a “loser”. Indeed, J.S.Bach’s eldest son’s lifestyle proved disappointing to his family, employers, to town elders and, finally, to himself. Yet, with one foot in the High Baroque and one in the Rococo style, Friedemann Bach has been referred to by some as the most brilliant of the four Bach composer sons and the last great German Baroque organist. Mahan Esfahani reads into Friedemann Bach’s playful, unconventional musical language, relating to each gesture, contrast and mood change, taking spontaneity as the benchmark of the compositional style of the illustrious German improviser, phrasing the work’s unexpected twists and turns with small hesitations and tasteful rubati. Not a performer to stand back and observe harpsichord music with sang-froid and objective chill, Esfahani takes on the vivacity, daring and expressiveness of the sonata with pizzazz and the wink of an eye.


The program concluded with J.S.Bach’s French Overture in B-minor BWV 831 from Part Two of the composer’s Clavier-Übung, published in Leipzig in 1735. Bach’s only complete mature ouverture-suite for solo keyboard, it straddles the genres of the English Suite, the Partita and, indeed the concerto concept, with “tutti” sections marked “forte” and solo passages as “piano” in Bach’s manuscript, thus requiring the use of the two-manual harpsichord. Esfahani opened the mammoth composition of eleven movements with his majestic, richly ornamented rendering of the extensive French Overture with its noble dotted rhythms, spreads, ornate trills, flourishes and the intricacies of its fugal central episode. Moving into the various dance movements, each emerges as a small gem, its character stamped with the artist’s personal taste and ideas, as, here and there, he holds the final chord a little longer to allow the listener to bask in its beauty before proceeding to the next. His playing of the Sarabande is meditative, spontaneous and personal. Then, following the infectious energy of  the dotted skipping, somewhat teasing construction of the Gigue, through whose processes Esfahani leads the listener, he then pulls out all the plugs to present Bach’s whimsical addition - the genial, indeed, exhilarating and joyous Echo movement. If the Clavier-Übung is an encyclopaedic overview of Baroque keyboard composition, Esfahani’s playing of this work certainly supports this.


For his encores, the artist played pieces of Purcell and Rameau.


An artist with flair, virtuosity and a vigorous musical personality, Mahan Esfahani’s performance is full-bodied and vibrant. His is a fine balance of intelligence and emotion. Under his fingers, the harpsichord springs to life with power, expressiveness and excitement. Mahan Esfahani today serves as professor of harpsichord at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.




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