- Time Present and Time Past
Deutsche Grammophon (0289 479 4481 2 CD DDD AH)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
A model recording for any instrument, not just the harpsichord. Concertos? Three, one by Gorecki, one by Geminiani, another by J.S. Bach, all weightily played by the Concerto Köln. Florid, stylish solo works? Two, both — like the Geminiani — based on the ancient “La Folia” theme, by Alessandro Scarlatti and C.P.E. Bach. Mesmerizing novelties? Of course: Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase,” rearranged and overdubbed for single harpsichord. Exhaustingly brilliant.
David Allen, The New York Times
Lest we should think that the harpsichord exists merely to execute music of olden times, the brilliant young Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani here intersperses his Scarlatti and Bach with Henryk Górecki’s Harpsichord Concerto of 1980 and a harpsichord version of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase of 1967, originally conceived for two pianos…Esfahani at his vibrant and expressive best.
Geoffrey Norris, The Telegraph
Mahan Esfahani’s new CD – the first harpsichord recital on the DG label in three decades – is, in a way, a concept album. Equating minimalism and baroque music is not new, but Esfahani, always a sparky and searching player, juxtaposes them here so as to create an unusually direct link. Three of the works from Time Past – by Alessandro Scarlatti, CPE Bach and Geminiani – are obsessive variations on the tiny sequence La Follia, and he and the robust yet elegant players of Concerto Köln end with Bach’s Concerto in D minor. In between comes Time Present, or at least Time Recent. Gorecki’s 1980 Harpsichord Concerto is initially heavy-going, with an oppressive first movement relaxing into something approaching joy in the second. More beguiling is Esfahani’s two-track recording of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, in which the harpsichord creates new textures and effects, including moments when the music seems to leap out in 3D.
Erica Jeal, The Guardian
CPE Bach’s quirkily inventive La folia Variations, where Esfahani’s subtle overlapping legato fingerwork and intuitive grasp of the composer’s mood-swings are deeply impressive. Jed Distler, Gramophone
The bewildering phase shifts in Steve Reich’s Piano Phase are simply spectacular. Esfahani performs them by playing together with a tape recording of himself. A common thread in the baroque works is La Follia, an often used ostinato theme, spinning circles in endless variations through the same chord scheme. However, the CD is first and foremost a special one because of Esfahani’s superior musicianship. His sparkling playing overcomes the image that is still sometimes attached to the harpsichord: that of a monotonous one-dimensional instrument.
Frits van der Waa, de Volkskrant
Unifying them even more, though, is the bullish spirit of Esfahani’s playing: this is intense, fiery, explosive musicianship, delivered with ferocious conviction, virtuoso flair and never a hint of academic meekness. Concerto Köln match his galvanising drive with sounds that are raw, lean and impassioned, whether in Bach’s brooding D minor concerto or the anarchic, obsessive and thoroughly startling Górecki. It’s an audacious and visionary project…Esfahani more than proves the versatility and colourful nature of the harpsichord….At this rate he’ll simply leave others standing – or, perhaps, combing through the embers.
Jessica Duchen, Sinfini Music
- Poulenc Concert champêtre, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Chicago Symphony Center (May 2015)The dashing soloist, playing a lovely-sounding, two-manual harpsichord, was the Iranian-born, British harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, substituting for Kristian Bezuidenhout, who had withdrawn for health reasons. He tossed off the animated sprays of notes with deft rhythmic attack and seemingly infallible fingers, setting the delicate timbres of his instrument in clear relief against the surrounding accompaniment. Esfahani follow[ed] the concerto with a solo encore: Rameau’s “Gavotte and Variations,” which gave his virtuosic mettle full rein.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
J.S. Bach Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1)
Snape Maltings (August 2014)
Mahan Esfahani’s performance of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was even more riveting. For the gentle harpsichord to fill this venue is already an awesome task; the lighting was dropped almost to darkness, and Esfahani created a balance of tensions that shifted from calm to highly wrought, the singing lines emerging with consummate clarity. Serene, cerebral, playful, knotty, soulful, sometimes unashamedly virtuosic – Bach embraced everything. And by way of underlining the beautiful physics of it all – a prelude and fugue in each of the 12 keys rising semi-tone by semitone – Esfahani followed the final fugue in B minor with a return to the beginning, the now doubly ethereal Prelude No 1 in C major completing the circle. In a crazy world, something was made perfect. The message to take home, suggested Esfahani by way of quelling the applause, was that Bach is a way of life.
Rian Evans, The Guardian
Couperin, CPE Bach, Takemitsu, et al.
Wigmore Hall (July 2014)
He’s a brilliant player — two days after this recital I’m still tingling over his forensic attack and silk-smooth arpeggios — but he also knows about friendly presentation… Dashingly eloquent, dizzyingly skilled, Esfahani makes the harpsichord seem an instrument reborn.
Geoff Brown, The Times
We were flung into dramatic scenarios, agitated disputes, ardent sermons, all brought to vivid life through the apparently dry, tinkly sound of a harpsichord…his passionate engagement with the music was totally captivating.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
This was a splendid recital.
Mark Berry, Seen and Heard International
Recital at Aldeburgh Music Festival
Aldeburgh Parish Church (June 2014)
There was more virtuosity again at Aldeburgh’s parish church, where the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani embraced music from early 17th-century Bull and Gibbons to Bartók and Ligeti. In the latter’s Continuum, seeing the effort expended was like watching someone pushing himself to the limit on a weight-machine in a gym, with an added aesthetic agenda. Esfahani’s disarming ability to talk his listeners through the before-and-after of the experience matched his extraordinary technique.
Rian Evans, The Guardian
And, at Aldeburgh Parish Church in the afternoon, the Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani gave a revelatory recital in which, in each half, the quiet focus of pieces by John Bull and Orlando Gibbons intensified what was to come: extraordinary performances of extraordinary works by Martinů, Bartók (Three Dances in Bulgarian rhythm), and Ligeti — his Passacaglia ungharese and a mechanistic Continuum which made Esfahani grimace in pain and his audience in unmitigated pleasure.
Hilary Finch, The Times
Byrd, Bach & Ligeti, Wigmore Hall LIVE
Wigmore Hall LIVE – WHLive0066 (April 2014)
With an instinctive sense of rhythm and a gift for interpretation, Esfahani has firmly established himself as one of today’s most thrilling harpsichordists.
Martin Cullingford, Gramophone (Editor’s Choice)
Byrd’s Walsingham variations are enlivened by Esfahani’s animated pacing, incisive fingerwork and effortless distinction between legato and detached phrasings… Highly recommended.
Jed Distler, Gramophone
Esfahani marches and dances, sings, swaggers and prays, with a sensitive balance of delicacy and vigour. He brings intelligence and grace to the Ricercars and a canon from Bach’s Musical Offering, their contrapuntal lines spun with limpid clarity. But perhaps most striking are the dazzling realizations of three harpsichord pieces by György Ligeti. These eclectic soundscapes are splashed with the exotic colours of Hungarian folk music and the acidulous tunings of mean-tone temperament; they pulsate with the syncopations of jazz or the rhythmic complexities of late 14th-century ars subtilior, and they hypnotise with the ever-turning ground basses of Baroque laments or the repeating chord patterns of rock and pop. Esfahani communicates all this, and more, with giddying technique and a perceptive understanding of Ligeti’s mongrel idiom. His two harpsichords glimmer radiantly in the Wigmore’s fine acoustic.
Kate Bolton, BBC Music Magazine (Editor’s Choice)
He is a simply superb player. His technique is beyond criticism and his inherent musicianship goes far deeper than mere surface understanding… It is difficult not to warm to such a musician, and when one hears his performances of these Byrd pieces – so musical, so essentially re-creative in the best sense, with each note and phrase fully part of the piece itself – one can only applaud the young man’s artistry. His sensitivity is of the highest, and the brilliance of his playing – especially in the Galliard to the Fifte Pavian and the Marche Before the Battell – is breathtaking. Both the Fantasia (No. 52 of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) and the concluding piece in this selection, Walsingham, demonstrate the finest harpsichord playing I have ever heard, so much so that on hearing them at first, I was compelled to repeat the experience several times. Esfahani’s part-playing in the three J.S. Bach pieces, especially the Ricercar a 6, is positively enviable, a combination of clarity and expressivity of the subtlest kind, which makes this CD an urgent acquisition for lovers of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music. This music is more than interesting, and no composer could ask for more committed or enthralling accounts than these… By any standards, this is a recording of great distinction.
Robert Matthew-Walker, International Record Review
Recital at Zürich Tonhalle
Zürich, March 2014
Esfahani gave a really exciting interpretation of CPE Bach’s Wurttemburg Sonata No.2, where he was really in his element. He attractively peeled out the fickle nature of the first movement, cultivated the sensitive style of the Adagio and realised the effervescent virtuosity of the third movement… His interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Partita No.2 in c minor again illuminated the personality of the musician.
Thomas Schacher, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
CPE Bach, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Fortepiano, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, February 2014
The graceful phrases passed back and forth between soloists Mahan Esfahani and Danny Driver were lovingly shaped, and the contrast between the harpsichord’s silvery tinkle and the fortepiano’s drawing-room intimacy was a delight.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
CPE Bach, Württemberg Sonatas
Hyperion CDA67995, January 2014
This, his first solo disc, provides a particularly welcome introduction onto the world stage for an artist matching, in ‘expression’, CPE Bach himself.
George Pratt, BBC Music Magazine (‘Recording of the Month’ – *****)
The elusive fusion of thematic intricacy, ‘Baroque’ rhetoric and ‘proto-Classical’ Sturm und Drang offered by the instrument are caught perfectly by Esfahani’s supple touch and disarming sense of rhetorical pacing.
David Vickers, Gramophone
In this winning performance by the young American-Iranian harpsichordist, one is taken aback by the avant-garde effects and abrupt changes of tempo and mood. The sound of his instrument — a reproduction based on models by the Berlin court harpsichord-maker Michael Mietke (d 1719) — enjoys a wide-ranging spectrum of timbres in Esfahani’s dexterous hands, but it is the verve of his allegros and the affecting pathos of his slow movements that mark him out as a special interpreter of this fascinating composer’s music in his tercentenary year.
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times
Esfahani’s performances wonderfully convey the sense of the younger Bach flexing his muscles in the new musical language that he was involved in creating. The instrument Esfahani plays them on, a modern copy of a harpsichord from the beginning of the 18th century, and the way it is tuned, seem to emphasise the transitional feel of the music, too; there’s an almost fortepiano-like solidity to the sound, with crisp definition in both the high and low registers that matches its expressive ambitions perfectly.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
As for his playing, in the best sense it is anything but unpredictable: sure-minded and vividly realized, it holds the attention with ease and is a pleasure to hear. This is an excellent recording and it can be thoroughly recommended. The harpsichord may never quite be mainstream material, but you sense that, if it were ever to get there, Esfahani might just be the man to make it happen.
Peter Lynan, International Record Review
The best of [CPE Bach’s] music reflects his personal sophistication, with no shortage of creative genius to turn this wide cultural awareness into excellent pieces that deserve a hearing. Such as the six Württemberg Sonatas on this new Hyperion album, featuring the truly exceptional, London based Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. All six are lively and exuberant, full of youthful joie de vivre, and sometimes stunning technical effects, all of which are brought out by Esfahani’s light touch. The playing here is miles away from the clangorous, congested sound once so typical of harpsichord recitals, which caused the instrument to be denounced by Sir Thomas Beecham as like listening to ‘copulating skeletons’. Hopefully, we will get more new recordings from Esfahani. I’d love to hear him in some of Emanuel’s many keyboard concertos.
David Mellor, The Mail on Sunday
Mahan Esfahani here plays six fine early sonatas, delivered with glitter and glamour on the harpsichord. His intelligence, flair and freshness make the music leap off the page into powerful life. There’s a conviction here that demands recognition of the rebel Bach’s still underrated genius.
Jessica Duchen, Sinfini Music
His sense of musical freedom sets him apart from some of the more dogmatic players of previous generations. He allows the music plenty of room to breathe and lets the listener appreciate the often rhetorical or humorous nature of these sonatas. The E Flat Major is a case in point: the first movement’s question and answer elements are well delineated while the superbly lyrical second movement unfolds with admirable serenity… This fresh and insightful recording is a very welcome offering in this 300th anniversary year of CPE’s birth. More please.
Tom Way, Limelight
Bach The Musical Offering, RNCM Chamber Music Festival
Manchester Cathedral, January 2014
The high point of the concerts I attended came the next evening in that same chilly space: a performance by the Academy of Ancient Music of JS’s The Musical Offering, and particularly its central six-part ricercar, played on the harpsichord by Mahan Esfahani. The audience could not have been more attentive. The musical thought was as loftily sustained as the building itself. I had a sudden feeling of the sublime.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times
Handel Concert, Academy of Ancient Music
Kölner Philharmonie, September 2013
As organist and harpsichordist, [Esfahani] gave a flawless performance of music by Handel with the Academy of Ancient Music at the Kölner Philharmonie – highly virtuosic improvisations and joyously delivered with some breakneck speeds.
Byrd, Bach and Ligeti Recital
Wigmore Hall (May 2013)
With a programme of Byrd, Bach and Ligeti, and using two very different instruments, he shed light both on the harpsichord’s first heyday and on its second as 1970s avant-gardists awoke to its unique possibilities. And if this Iranian-American has carved out a niche as his instrument’s leading champion – his harpsichord Prom in 2011 was the first in that institution’s history – his success is founded on remarkable artistry. The Ligeti pieces were off-the-wall, and that was how he played them…
Michael Church, International Piano Magazine
Recital at Bath Bachfest
Guildhall, Bath, (February 2013)
Such virtuosity and disarming presentation suggests that Esfahani could inspire a whole new appreciation of the instrument.
Rian Evans, The Guardian
The Art of Fugue (Bach Arr. Esfahani), Academy of Ancient Music
Cadogan Hall, London (July 2012)
Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s arrangement of The Art of Fugue, premiered by Esfanahi and members of the Academy of Ancient Music, made Bach’s counterpoint glisten so brightly you could imagine – faint hope – you could comprehend its intricate workings.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer
Oxford Philomusica Summer Baroque
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (July 2012)
Aged only twenty eight, of Iranian origin, Esfahani has to be regarded as one of the foremost musicians of his generation and as one of the leading harpsichordists since the revival of that instrument in the twentieth century.
British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Recital at Paxton House
Berwick-upon-Tweed (July 2012)
It would be hard not to be impressed by Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani . . . In a beautifully chosen programme of Gibbons, d’Anglebert, Couperin, Ciaja and Bach, Esfahani’s touch was always insightful and, above all, visceral.
Kate Molleson, The Guardian
Recital at the Frick Collection, New York City
Mr. Esfahani offered an imaginative rendition of Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations, played with soulful flair and a sense of spontaneity…a colorful performance of William Croft’s Ground in C minor…Mr. Esfahani’s confident, characterful playing and tasteful ornamentation…Mr. Esfahani’s excellent performance of five Scarlatti sonatas, beginning with an elegant rendition of the Sonata in F minor (K. 462). Mr. Esfahani demonstrated impressive technique during the Sonata in G (K. 124) and again during the rapid-fire Sonata in D minor (K. 141).
Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times
Recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art
Esfahani established his credentials as a thoughtful, elegant player in four very different works by William Byrd…Esfahani found sense and structure everywhere while dazzling us with his digital prowess. J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in g was sheerly delightful under Esfahani’s fingers…Those who had already digested Esfahani’s witty and evocative program notes probably tried to follow along with his game of assigning narratives to each of the pieces. Expressive rubatos, wild runs and arpeggios and sudden accelerandos only served to make their imagined stories more vivid. You could probably listen to these pieces all day without risking boredom…Esfahani is a quiet figure at the keyboard, but one who draws you powerfully into his own, personal intensity. His facial expressions are as arresting as his playing. The large audience responded more enthusiastically than I can ever remember for a harpsichord recital and Esfahani responded with a highly ornate, aria-like encore by Cimarosa. He needs to be invited back soon
Daniel Hathaway, Cleveland Classical
J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, Halifax Philharmonic Club
The ideal interpreter of Bach’s astonishing genius…The harpsichord as an interpretative instrument never sounded so expressive. Mahan Esfahani’s wondrous technique, musicality and intensity of concentration made for an enthralling evening.
Julia Anderson, Halifax Courier
York Early Music Festival
Mahan Esfahani had earlier switched effortlessly between harpsichord and the more intimate virginals in toccatas, toyes and fancies from Elizabeth and Jacobean England. Always one to live dangerously, he took on some of the toughest pieces, notably Byrd’s Walsingham variations, and won the day with dazzling virtuosity. A maestro already, and still only 27.
Martin Dreyer, York Press
Wigmore Hall recital with James Bowman
Mahan Esfahani, who is quickly establishing himself as the leading harpsichordist of his generation’, ‘Esfahani is physically involved with his instrument, delighting in the sounds of its mechanism; rising from his seat as if his whole body is contributing to the production of sound, he positively foregrounds the instrument’s mechanism. Never does technique, albeit astonishing, outshine the music: an astounding array of tones and shades was matched by an attention to the expressivity of the dense counterpoint, and a concern to convey the power of harmonic tension and release.’
Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall
The work has a sarabande theme which frames 30 variations. They range from gentle doodles to lightning flashes. Esfahani was equal to them all. He varied the registrations on his two-manual instrument. But extra colours never clouded the clarity of the voices, even in Variation 10’s fugue. He maintained this transparency in the whirlwind of Variation 12. His approach to the slower movements was extremely elastic, yet always persuasive, making the melancholy modulations of Variation 25 sound positively modern. Elsewhere, his fingerwork was dazzling, throwing off the impossibly speedy Variation 20 almost nonchalantly and making a startling toccata of Variation 29. This man has special powers. Bist Du Bei Mir (Stay By Me) as an encore was in keeping with the near-religious atmosphere he conjured. For this was nothing short of an act of worship.
The Press, February 2011
J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations
Old Town House of Haddington
The young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, in the Old Town House of Haddington, gave a wonderfully personal performance of the Goldberg Variations; sound and physicality both reflective of an individual emotional path taken through this most refined of works.
Gramophone Magazine, November 2010
York Early Music Festival
The Friday YEMF lunchtime recital (Unitarian Chapel) hosted a wide range of 17th and 18th-century harpsichord music by the excellent Mahan Esfahani. The programme opened with a Froberger toccata with dazzling keyboard skills, resulting in a polished and very animated performance. Indeed, as the Couperin confirmed, Mahan Esfahani is a consummate performer, playing with vitality, drive and authority… The opening of the Bach English Suite No.2 was like stepping into a musical Rolls Royce, the music sublime, the playing simply imperious.
Wigmore Hall recital
..once seated at the keyboard, he becomes amazingly animated, his face registering every quiver of emotion, his right knee flying up when things get really animated…As for Esfahani’s playing, it makes maximum use of the harpsichord’s main expressive resources…the opening Adagio from Handel’s F major Suite, an impassioned song over a pacing left hand, took on a wonderful elastic quality. When the line arched upwards, the beat seemed momentarily pulled back; when it tumbled down, it urged forward, but never in a way that seemed mechanical. This was music, not the aural equivalent of a switchback.
Bloomberg News, 2012: “Bach’s Mysterious Fugues Get New Persian Remix at the Proms.” Read here.