Classical and Opera Reviews

Mahan Esfahani @ Wigmore Hall, London

9 May 2018


Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani
(Photo: Bernhard Musil / DG)

This was the third concert in a planned sixteen-strong series, in which Mahan Esfahani will perform every piece that J. S. Bach wrote for the harpsichord, or for which a harpsichord version exists. The evening revealed excellent programming skills, but was ultimately made by the performer’s ability to temper total mastery of his subject matter with a sense of artistic freedom.

Every word that Esfahani wrote in the programme, or uttered as he introduced the pieces, revealed his meticulous approach to understanding the music. Nevertheless, he stressed that ‘The point here is not to intellectualise art (whatever that means) with a corresponding inverse appreciation of the emotional impact of the music. But the more we understand the very ‘nuts and bolts’ of this art, the musical material itself, the more we can understand the emotional intent of the composer, and the more we can feel with the composer’.

He was equally candid, however, that there comes a point where archaeology has to cease so that art can begin. No-one thinks twice about an orchestra interpreting a symphony, and yet with the harpsichord too often achieving ‘authenticity’, as opposed to a beautiful or moving interpretation, is viewed as the end goal in its own right. When introducing his final piece of the evening, the English Suite No. 5 in E minor, BWV810, Esfahani explained how he could never know if he was playing the work in the way in which Bach had intended, but that what mattered to him was how the notes on the page moved him to realise them.

The audience was asked not to applaud between the first two pieces, and this enabled the differences between them to work their magic. The Six Little Preludes, BWV933-938 which opened the evening are very beautiful, as they progress in turn through the keys C major, C minor, D major, D minor, E major and E minor, although the third and fourth are ‘reversed’ so that D minor precedes D major. Here Esfahani, while delivering exceptionally detailed and nuanced playing, captured their smooth and rounded nature. In contrast, the Sonata in C major, BWV966 that followed revealed just how versatile a player he is, and how disparate the demands the piece places on an interpreter who is well versed enough to appreciate them. At times he drove the sound to an extent that scarcely seemed possible on a harpsichord, while at others he languished in phrases to a notable degree. There were also moments when the pace seemed just a fraction slower than might have initially seemed appropriate for the section, but this was also planned to perfection because it introduced a real sense of tension.

Esfahani played on a harpsichord that was specifically commissioned for the Bach series at Wigmore Hall. It was built by the workshop of Jukka Ollikka in Prague, ‘based on a free adaptation of theories from the Berlin court builder Michael Mietke (1710)’. It was shown to particularly good effect in the Toccata in G minor, BWV915 and Toccata in C minor, BWV911, which fell either side of the interval. This is because the instrument was clearly designed to create an ‘authentic’ sound while also possessing the flexibility to project in larger venues. For example, Ollikka designed a carbon fibre composite soundboard especially for it, which presumably enables it to withstand greater string tensions and hence be more powerful. One could hear the volume levels increase and decrease as ‘stops’, which did exist on many harpsichords and could only be adjusted for sections rather than individual notes, were utilised. The programme ended with a performance of the English Suite No. 5 in E minor, BWV 810, which, among many other things, revealed Esfahani’s ability to extract real yet appropriate power from the harpsichord, rather than by simply applying the same energy levels as one might to a modern piano.

The next concert in the Bach series at Wigmore Hall is on 19 June 2018. For details of this, and all of his forthcoming events, visit Mahan Esfahani’s website.


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