Monday, January 7, 2019

"The Passinge Mesures" - harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani's recent recording of music of the English Virginalist School

Photo: Kaja Smith
Iranian/American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s recent CD “The Passinge Mesures” offers a representative selection of music of the English (and Welsh) Virginalist school, much of it appearing in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, but not all. The artist takes the listener on a journey into the riches of this genre and into his own very personal relationship into it, a “repertoire which I increasingly came to feel I was born to play”, in the artist’s own words.


We are talking about an entire genre that developed and functioned over only a few of decades, the entire school dying out completely by the middle of the 17th century. William Byrd, the first great master of the English Virginalist school of keyboard composition, presided over this era.  Indeed, Esfahani’s playing of Byrd’s “The nynth pavian and galliarde, the Passinge Mesures” (from which the disc takes its title, “Passinge Mesures” apparently being an English miswriting of “passamezzo”), the two dances written in the 1570s to a passamezzo antico bass, bristles with ideas, buoyant figurations and registration changes.  Esfahani’s resourceful playing of the two dances and the variations on each is validation of the fantasy and exuberance there to be unleashed in this music. As to John Bull’s Chromatic (Queen Elizabeth’s) pavan and galliard, its opening pavan emerged meditative and bewitching, with the artist’s playing of the galliard, albeit ornate, still reminding the listener of the joyful dance’s leaps and hops and of its defining feature - a vigorous jump on the last two beats of a phrase.


The great Welsh composer Thomas Tomkins, Byrd’s last surviving pupil, is represented on the disc. His setting of the popular 16th century ballad tune “Barafostus Dreame” (it is not clear who this man was and what kind of dream he had) opens majestically; Esfahani’s playing of the work is stylish, varied and exhilarating, the artist’s hallmark dexterity and incisive playing spelling out the course of the eight variations as he highlights the individuality of each. To me, one of the disc’s highlights is the performance of Tomkins’ Pavana (FVB CXXIII), ceremonious, plangent, and eloquent, Esfahani’s ornamentation sometimes profuse, indeed always fascinating, as are the unexpected harmonic shifts embedded here and there in the score. Other dances featured include the elegant Pavin ‘M.Orlando Gibbons’ by Gibbons himself and “Nobodyes Gigge”, a cheerful, compact piece by Richard Farnaby (Giles Farnaby’s lesser-known son, employed to teach Sir Nicholas Saunderson of Fillingham’s children ‘in skill of musick and plaieinge uppon instruments’)


With the simple melodic style of popular songs and folk tunes serving as a starting-point for composers of the English Virginal School to engage in elaborate forays into keyboard virtuosity, the disc also includes a selection of pieces based on song melodies - an anonymous setting of John Dowland’s wistful “Can she excuse my wrongs?” and Esfahani’s serene playing of  William Inglot’s empathic setting (one of several) of “The leaves bee greene”, a popular tune of the late 16th. Century, also referred to as “Browning”:
‘Browning Madame, browning Madame,
So merrily we sing browning Madame,
The fairest flower in the garden green,
 Is in my love's breast all comely seen,
And with all others, compare she can,
Therefore now let us sing browning Madame.’

Then there are a number of song-based pieces by Giles Farnaby, whose cousin, Nicholas Farnaby, a maker of virginals, may have been instrumental in pointing him in the direction of keyboard music and his subsequent contributions to the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. I have heard performances of Farnaby’s “Wooddy-Cock” sounding like a lexicon of harpsichord techniques. Esfahani’s reading of it speaks of its temperament, invention and spirit; in his bold, unfettered playing of some variations, Esfahani does not waive articulacy in the name of harum-scarum complexity.


And if the fantasia is the composer’s unbuttoned invitation to spontaneity and free expression, this great keyboard artist meets him at eye level, as in John Bull’s Fantasia “Mr Dr Bull”, Esfahani identifying- and celebrating John Bull’s daring and individuality with his own, both their excursions into keyboard virtuosity taking the listener to the edge of his chair. Indeed, no less so in William Byrd’s “Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la”, also referred to as the “Hexachord Fantasia”, featuring the stepwise ascending and descending Guidonian hexachord as a recurrent subject (seventeen times, in fact) and including two song melodies. Esfahani, however, takes it a step further as he invites the piece to burgeon with the rich palette of his own natural and spontaneous expression.


Recorded in 2017 for the Hyperion label, most of the pieces are played on a double-manual harpsichord by Robert Goble & Son, Oxford (1990) based on an instrument made by Carl Conrad Fleischer, Hamburg (1710), with some works performed on virginals made by Huw Saunders, London (1989) and a copy of an instrument made by Thomas White, London (1642). The temperament used for the recording was quarter-comma meantone. The artist’s personal and informative liner notes make for interesting reading. Listening to the warm, richly resonant recording quality of “The Passinge Mesures”, with just enough of a hint of keyboard action heard, I felt as if I had been seated in Mahan Esfahani’s own music room to experience this music together with him. A disc of remarkable performance, conviction and originality! The album is dedicated to the memory of Canadian historic keyboard artist Bradford Tracey (1951-1987).

Photo: Miri Shamir

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