"With an instinctive sense of rhythm and a gift for interpretation, Esfahani has firmly established himself as one of today’s most thrilling harpsichordists."
"Such virtuosity and disarming presentation suggests that Esfahani could inspire a whole new appreciation of the instrument."
"Nothing could have prepared me for the brilliance and artistry of Mahan Esfahani, who, despite his young age, played with the musicality and virtuosity of a master ... not a single phrase lacked purpose or direction."
"...daring and fiery performances..."
"The Harpsichord comes out of hiding ... magnificent."
The Daily Telegraph
"Esfahani gave a flawless performance – highly virtuosic improvisations and joyously delivered with some breakneck speeds."
"It would be hard not to be impressed by Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani ... In a beautifully chosen programme Esfahani’s touch was always insightful and, above all, visceral."
The New York Times
Mahan Esfahani has made it his life's mission to rehabilitate the harpsichord in the mainstream of concert instruments, and to that end his creative programming and work in commissioning new works have drawn the attention of critics and audiences across Europe, Asia, and North America. He was the first and only harpsichordist to be a BBC New Generation Artist (2008-2010), a Borletti-Buitoni prize winner (2009), and a nominee for Gramophone's Artist of the Year (2014, 2015, and 2017).
His work for the harpsichord has resulted in recitals in most of the major series and concert halls, amongst them London's Wigmore Hall and Barbican Centre, Oji Hall in Tokyo, the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing, Shanghai Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Recital Centre, Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, Berlin Konzerthaus, Zurich Tonhalle, Wiener Konzerthaus, San Francisco Performances, the 92nd St Y, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, Cologne Philharmonie, Edinburgh International Festival, Aspen Music Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, Madrid's Fundacio Juan March, Bergen Festival, Festival Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Al Bustan Festival in Beirut, Jerusalem Arts Festival, and the Leipzig Bach Festival, and concerto appearances with the Chicago Symphony, BBC Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Melbourne Symphony, Auckland Philharmonia, Czech Radio Symphony, Orquesta de Navarra, Malta Philharmonic, Aarhus Symphony, Hamburg Symphony, Munich Chamber Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with whom he is an artistic partner for 2016-2019. Upcoming highlights include his Carnegie Hall debut in spring of 2018, recitals at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Thuringer Bachwoche with violinist Liza Ferschtman, concertos with the Kammerakademie Potsdam, and the continuation of a multi-year project of the complete keyboard works of J.S. Bach for Wigmore Hall, with whom he has enjoyed an association since he made his debut there in 2009.
His richly-varied discography includes two critically-acclaimed recordings for Hyperion - the C.P.E. Bach Württemberg Sonatas garnering a 2014 Gramophone Award and the Complete Pièces de Clavecin of Rameau being nominated both for a Gramophone and being named in the New York Times Critics’ List of Top Recordings of 2014 - and two albums for Deutsche Grammophon. The first for DG, ‘Time Present and Time Past,’ garnered a ‘Choc de Classica’ in France, while the latest of Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations was released in August 2016 to praise from the British and foreign press, most notably being named to the long list for the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik and winning the BBC Music Magazine 2017 Instrumental Award. He also has recorded Dutilleux with the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot and an album for Wigmore Hall Live, which again was honoured with a Gramophone nomination. A recording of Corelli with the legendary Michala Petri - a particularly important duo to his own heart - was awarded an ICMA in 2016.
Esfahani studied musicology and history at Stanford University and studied harpsichord in Boston with Peter Watchorn before completing his formation under the celebrated Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková. Following a three-year stint as Artist-in-Residence at New College, Oxford, he continues his academic associations as an honorary member at Keble College, Oxford, and as professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He can be frequently heard as a commentator on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4 and as a host for such programs as Record Review, Building a Library, and Sunday Feature; for the latter programme he is currently at work on his third radio documentary following two popular programmes on such subjects as the history of African-American composers in the classical sphere. Born in Tehran in 1984 and raised in the United States, he lived in Milan and then London for several years before taking up residence in Prague.
This biography is for information only and should not be reproduced.
Haydn Concerto in D Major, Musica Saeculorum
Kölner Philharmonie (September 2017)
Esfahani played elegantly, supply and with sensitivity for the music.
Markus Schwering, Kölner Philharmonie
D’Anglebert, W.F. Bach, J.S. Bach, Edinburgh International Festival
St Cecilia’s Hall (August 2017)
He seems to be on a mission to demonstrate the expressiveness of his instrument – and judging by his remarkably fluid, fresh, almost improvisatory playing and rhythmic suppleness, he’s pretty much succeeded. It was as joyful as it was revelatory – and, it goes without saying, deeply expressive.
David Kettle, The Scotsman
Poulenc Harpsichord Concerto, Hamburger Symphoniker
Laeiszhalle Hamburg (May 2017)
Esfahani, who has also already performed Steve Reich’s minimalist music on the harpsichord, knows all the finesses and it is not for nothing that his efforts to revive the harpsichord (also in the contemporary dimensions) are supported by his record label… The finale [of the Poulenc] with its rapid runs and passages was performed with extreme virtuosity by Mahan Esfahani, who delivered a piece of “early music” by Henry Purcell as an encore.
Helmut Peter, Welt.de
Coll, De Falla, Stravinsky & Scarlatti
Britten Sinfonia, Milton Court, London (February 2017)
Esfahani was the easily agile soloist in [the Stravinsky] concerto, too, and he also contributed a group of four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (Italian by birth, Spanish by adoption), which he dispatched with almost nonchalant brilliance.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
The Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani is one of a kind, and his event with the Britten Sinfonia under Thomas Gould’s was fruitfully provocative.
Michael Church, The Independent
Bach Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Wigmore Hall, London (December 2016)
It was Esfahani’s curiosity and delight as an interpreter, and a listener, that shone. Speeds were impulsive: sometimes Esfahani swooshed past a treacherous canon as if trying to break a downhill skiing record. At other times — as if on the peak of the mountain — there were delicious moments of repose where we could stop and see the treetops… Bach’s music is very often mesmerising. It’s very rarely this fun.
Neil Fisher, The Times
Dutilleux Les citations, Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot
CD SSM1012 (September 2016)
This timbrally supple performance, graphically recorded, springs into life as Mahan Esfahani’s louche harpsichord enters furtively and cuts across the prevailing ensemble flow with gestures that outline stolid Baroque grandeur and notes that collapse architecture from the inside.
Philip Clark, Gramophone
Bull, Kalabis, d’Anglebert, Saariaho, Kidane, Scarlatti
Wigmore Hall, London (July 2016)
John Bull’s Chromatic (Queen Elizabeth’s) Pavan and Galliard contrasted interiority and brilliance, while the Bull Fantasia at the end of the set lived up to its name, Esfahani vividly conveying its improvisatory qualities. In between we were thrust into the world of communist Czechoslovakia, courtesy of Viktor Kalabis’s three Aquarelles... He delighted in their range — from the sparest of textures to sheer motoric brilliance — and a sly humour too.
At the keyboard, he led us from the glories of d’Anglebert, which included a sumptuous reading of the Passacaille d’Armide, to the unflinching Tarocco of Danish modernist Axel Borup-Jørgensen... Kaija Saariaho’s Jardin Secret II for harpsichord and tape, on the other hand, was a deliciously sinister sonic adventure.
The Six Etudes of 30-year-old Daniel Kidane brought us right up to the present, offering textures of great finesse and shards of Ligetian playfulness (even adding an intentionally jarring hotel reception bell to the sixth). We ended with Scarlatti and here too Esfahani offered something new, unveiling a couple of recently discovered sonatas. He eschewed the obvious crowd-pleasers, instead choosing sonatas such as the G major, Kk260, with its zany harmonies. As an encore came Richard Rodney Bennett’s Little Elegy, borrowed from the piano and given with great tenderness.
Harriet Smith, Financial Times
Scarlatti, Kuhnau, Froberger
Schloßkonzerte Bad Krozingen (May 2016)
When Esfahani plays he never holds back, always going all out. In Alessandro Scarlatti's variations on the "La Follia" he risked everything, taking the tempo to its limits so that the simultaneousness of his hands threatened to waver. But it was this expressivity that made his playing so exciting and attractive. In Johann Kuhnau's "Biblische Historie" based on "Saul who was cured by David's music" he created fantastic characterisations. Saul's rage gushed out in a passionate fugue, the healing sound of David's harp unfolded its effect in intensely rubato consecutive thirds: this was really illustrative music.
There was a Dionysian spell over this programme, which Esfahani concluded with six sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, which delight in experimenting in the sound world (e.g. in the long suspended notes) and in the modulations. Esfahani celebrated all of this in often bold tempi. There was huge applause at the end – apparently there was nobody from Cologne in the audience.
Alexander Dick, Badische Zeitung
Recital with Thomas Hobbs (tenor)
London Festival of Baroque Music, St John’s, Smith Square, London (May 2016)
Esfahani, if you don’t know him already, approaches concerts with an impromptu flourish and some in-built randomness: not in his virtuosic playing but in the rest of the proceedings. It keeps you alert, which is not always true of an evening of harpsichord music. From a rich offering of the largely unfamiliar, the Sonata II, “Of Saul, Whom David Cured by Means of Music” (1700) by Johann Kuhnau stood out: flamboyant, expressive and ingenious.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer
Frescabaldi, Bach, Rameau, etc.
Brisbane Baroque, QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane (April 2016)
Where to begin with Mahan Esfahani. Breathtaking? Hypnotic? Try gobsmacking. The young Iranian-American harpsichord virtuoso is all of these, and more. An intense, expressive presence at the keyboard, he’s also an exceptional communicator, whether via the music itself, in interview, or through the informative, wide-ranging ‘programme notes’ that he delivers live to enhance the understanding of sections of his recital… Good for Brisbane Baroque, then, which had the smarts to present the Australian debut of this fascinating and multifaceted artist. And he didn’t disappoint either, in an absorbing, penetrating and passionate couple of hours that left the audience as breathless as the performer… This was a generous recital, topped off by some superb Rameau (the Gavotte from his A Minor Suite). Judging from conversations on the way out, I was not alone in feeling I’d witnessed something very special.
Clive Paget, Limelight
Farnaby, Bach, Bartók et al
Wimbledon International Music Festival, London (November 2015)
No one has done more to popularise [the harpsichord] as a concert instrument in the present day than Iranian-American virtuoso Mahan Esfahani. He began his recital at the Wimbledon International Music Festival with three pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, in which the infectious rhythms of the delightfully named Nobodyes Gigge by Richard Farnaby were adroitly dispatched. Each movement of JS Bach’s magnificent E minor Partita, the finest of the set, was characterised appropriately – the flamboyant Toccata, the fluent Allemande, the poignant Sarabande – while the unsettled, even frenzied quality of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Sonata in G was stylishly projected. There were also sparky miniatures by Bartók and Martinu, and death-defying cross-hand leaps in a Scarlatti encore, all flawlessly executed.
Barry Millington, Evening Standard
Górecki Harpsichord Concerto, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Wit
Barbican Centre, London (October 2015)
The programme’s most consistently impressive item was the relatively brief Harpsichord Concerto, whose neo-classical motor rhythms were brilliantly articulated by soloist.
George Hall, The Gaurdian
Mahan Esfahani, the soloist, played this with a fine ear for pulse and colour.
Anna Picard, The Times
The short and spiky Harpsichord Concerto, rippling along in the hands of Mahan Esfahani.
John Allison, The Telegraph
An excellent performance, though, from the ever-versatile Mahan Esfahani, his technique clearly unchallenged by the music, which he presented with a lot of class.
Gavin Dixon, theartsdesk.com
Esfahani rendered this engaging piece with suitably deadpan elegance.
Richard Whitehouse, classicalsource.com
In almost complete contrast, Gorecki’s miniature Harpsichord Concerto of 1980 was played with dizzying aplomb by Mahan Esfahani, accompanied by a chamber-sized string ensemble. Often seen as a light, skittish, work, the concerto has a darker aspect to its nine-minute duration. Esfahani, who recorded the work last year, has detected Gorecki’s feelings of frustration under Communism in the first movement’s tug between the harpsichord’s chordal shifts and the dead hand of the strings’ repeated rhythm. Even the last movement’s manic gaiety seems to suggest a Schnittke-like sarcasm.
John-Pierre Joyce, musicomh.com
Bach, Powell and Reich
St George’s, Bristol (October 2015)
Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s virtuosic flair is at once nonchalant and scintillating. In his later recital, he delivered JS Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, and the Toccata in C minor with impeccable clarity of line and expressivity. He went on to make a subtle link with the cello suites in his own arrangement of the two gavottes from the Cello Suite No 5. And dance they did...Mel Powell’s vibrant play on past and present, Recitative and Toccata Percossa, offered a final brilliant flourish.
Rian Evans, The Guardian
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
Esfahani begins with Scarlatti’s Variations on “La Follia.” The player is learned, stylish, and bold. Virtuosic, too (although anything can be made pristine and slick in a studio). From Esfahani’s playing comes tremendous life or flash. The Górecki piece is a Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra. It is in two movements, both of them fast: Allegro molto and Vivace. But the movements have completely different characters. The first is driving and virile; the second is lighter, peppier. Reich’s piece is Piano Phase for two pianos. Come again? It has been arranged for harpsichord—just one of them—by Esfahani...This performance is a feat of concentration and dexterity, and Esfahani’s arrangement is impressive.
Time Present and Time Past is an appealing disc, and it’s interesting to know that, even in the twenty-first century, people are falling in love with the harpsichord and its possibilities, and expanding those possibilities.
Jay Nordlinger, The New Criterion
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
It's brilliant, abrasive, sometimes demented, but signals the arrival of a highly original artist.
David Patrick Stearns, Philly.com
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
Duo Recital with Avi Avital (mandolin)
Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival (May 2015)
Compared with the mandolin’s exquisite personal quality, the jangly mechanism of the harpsichord with its unvarying dynamic could have seemed very clunky, like listening to a dry Enlightenment philosopher next to a rhapsodic poet. It’s a tribute to Esfahani’s artistry that it never seemed that way. He made his harpsichord as spontaneous and romantic as Avital’s mandolin, by bending phrases in an expressive way, and using lightning-fast changes of registration to change the instrument’s colour.
Most importantly, these two players have learned to breathe and move as one. In the encore, an exotic slow movement from a Vivaldi flute concerto arranged by Avital, there were numerous sensuous ornamental notes, shared between the two. The fact that often you couldn’t tell who was playing what made the music even more delicious.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
UK-DK, Michala Petri and Mahan Esfahani
OUR 6.220611 (SACD: 66:27) (February 2015)
Throughout the programme, well recorded in a Copenhagen church, Petri plays with immaculate tuning and finger technique, crisp tonguing and well-shaped melodic lines; Esfahani matchers her with well-judged colours and phrasing.
Anthony Burton, BBC Music Magazine
The OUR Recordings engineering team has balanced them against each other perfectly, but the success really is Petri's and Esfahani's, because they clearly are in synch with each other…Esfahani is an unusually expressive, colorful player, and I look forward to hearing him in a solo role—I probably will check out those Hyperion releases, now that I have heard him here.
Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare
I’ve gone on at some length without referring, except in passing, to the performances themselves. Perhaps that is because it goes without saying that anything this superstar pairing puts its hands to will be extraordinary.
Ronald E. Grames, Fanfare
Stylistically, this recording presents itself extremely multifaceted...Musically, Petri and Esfahani complement each other most beautifully...A phenomenal production, which is as enjoyable as it is profitable to listen to. We are looking forward to a sequel.
Heinz Braun, Klassik Haute
Corelli Six Sonatas opus 5 no. 7-12
OUR Recordings 6.220610 (November 2014)
Petri and Esfahani’s is an invigorating ensemble effort, each sparking off the other to foster a captivating directness whether sparkling or soulful. Nothing is safe or reverential, and yet there’s no iconoclastic agenda either. Preludios are ideally urbane; an almost Bachian dialogue invades No. 8’s Giga, while La Folia emerges beautifully paced, artfully embellished and vividly characterised.
Paul Riley, BBC Music Magazine (Chamber Choice, February 2015)
Petri and Esfahani still manage to sound absolutely bewiching throughout this uncannily beautiful recording from Copenhagen`s Garnisionskirken. Such is the musical chemistry between them that one soon becomes fully attuned to hearing this familiar music performed on the recorder… Equally, if you`re happy enough with just harpsichord accompaniment alone, then look no further than Petri`s and Esfahani`s immaculately played and diligently prepared new accounts, which seem in every way the last word in tasteful and elegant musicianship, with a magical recording to boot.
Michael Jameson, International Record Review
It`s rare to experience the level of artistic rapport heard on this recording from Danish recorder player Michala Petri and Iranian-born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. Corelli`s op.5 provides the framework for a remarkable demonstration of not only rich, idiomatic possibilities for transcriptions from violin to recorder but, significantly, the extraordinary levels of dialogue (trs 1 and 15) and genuine inspiration of the moment it inspires.
In Petri`s capable hands, the recorder becomes a medium through which she conveys a more vocal interpretation of thematic material than ever a violin could. From Corelli`s logical, elegant bass-lines, Esfahani crafts the most imaginative and engaging accompaniments and repartee I have ever heard, each phrase, sections and movement a skillful and stylish response (trs 1 and 14), to which he brings an astonishing range of techniques (trs 8 and 9) and instrumental colour (trs 13,17 and 19). The musical chemistry between the two musicians is palpable and most evident in the quick exchanges in the faster movements (trs 5,9,11 and 20). While there are movements of both sublime simplicity and compelling declamation (tr12), equally there is joyfulness and banter. Together, Petri and Esfahani take the application of ornamentation to new levels of sophistication (trs 2,3 and 16), exploring the implications of the music itself, commenting and reflecting on it by the way they choose the embellish repeats and points of imitation.
This is a recording that will repay repeated listening as a masterclass in musical collaboration. It breaks new and higher ground.
Julie Anne Sadie, Gramophone (Editor’s Choice)
[Petri] and Esfahani bring an extraordinarily lively rhythmic flair to this music, clearly reveling in its dance roots. The music is always going somewhere, it always has momentum and a sense of direction. Esfahani is a true partner in this effort, taking a lead role where the music calls for it (the opening of the Gavotte from op. 5/11, for instance), and applying the same degree of imagination to phrase-shaping and to ornamentation as Petri does.
Henry Fogel, Fanfare Magazine
A very well produced album. Here are two different types of artist playing in astonishing harmony. Six beautiful sonatas performed and with equal ease and many frills.
Søren Schauser, Berlingske Tidende
Esfahani is a wonderful harpsichordist who follows with as much taste and self-confidence of his partner.
Carsten Dürer, The Ensemble
These players make an absolutely terrific duo in transcriptions that seem to fall so naturally to these instruments. The very fine recording from Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen, Denmark gives a nice acoustic around the players whilst retaining detail and clarity.
Bruce Reader, The Classical Reviewer
Fresh, communicative, joyful music-making…I do hope that they will do more together.
Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Building a Library
J.S. Bach Three Sonatas for viola da gamba & harpsichord, BRQ Festival
Church of Saint Lawrence, Vantaa (August 2015)
Luolajan-Mikkola and Esfahani’s interpretations were perfect in all respects. Luolajan-Mikkola played with a smooth singing voice that caressed the ear, whilst Esfahani’s enthusiastic responses were equally enjoyable. Although originally composed for organ, their instruments made Bach’s Trio Sonata in d minor sound superb. The applause echoed throughout the packed church.
Wigmore Hall Live Byrd, J.S. Bach and Ligeti
The Telegraph ‘168 Best Classical Music Recordings’
So you think you hate the harpsichord? Iranian-born American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani will make you think again. He makes the music so vivid you forget the instrument’s limitations.
CPE Bach Württemberg Sonatas (Hyperion)
The Sunday Times ‘100 Best Records of the Year Sunday Times’
One of the first releases of the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach year revealed an emerging superstar in the Iranian-American harpsichordist.
The Sunday Times
Rameau Pièces de Clavecin
Hyperion Records CDA68071/2 (November 2014)
A key factor in determining the longevity of an interpretation is the degree to which the performer succeeds in characterising the music and, on this point alone, top marks must go to Mahan Esfahani, who seems always to have its measure and brings unfailing wit, affection, fluency and pacing to his interpretations…Having just won a Gramophone Award for his superlative CPE Bach recording, Esfahani has surely trumped it with Rameau’s solo harpsichord works.
Julie Anne Sadie, Gramophone
Mahan Esfahani’s second Hyperion recording comprises Rameau’s keyboard works. This is stylish playing but rarely showy, firm but never heavy in dance movements, imbued with a natural wit in the character pieces. I could easily have picked his delightful disc of C. P. E. Bach’s Württemberg Sonatas as well.
David Allen, The New York Times
I found his playing delightful, intelligent and insightful. He has pleasingly clean articulation throughout and can play with muscularity or delicacy, (or both) as each piece demands. His is a really impressive account of Handel-inspired Gavotte and six doubles (variations) and the A minor Suite, where he never lets momentum sag and builds up to a thrilling climax. By contrast, his Les Soupirs from the D Major Suite is gossamer light and seems to suspend time in dreamy nostalgia. Ravishing! [...] Esfahani’s set is, on balance, very successful and can be recommended to diehards and neophytes alike.
Andrew O’Connor, International Record Review
Gramophone-Award-winning harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has recorded Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin in the historic setting of the Music Room at Hatchlands Park in Surrey. This is a masterclass for the instrument, confirming this young artist as a truly great player…This double album comprises the whole of Rameau’s output of keyboard suites, and Esfahani rejoices in its wealth of genius, its excitement and drama. Rameau is a composer whose revival is ongoing, and his unique combination of the witty and the cerebral, the light and the curmudgeonly, abounds throughout his harpsichord music.
Philippe Ramin, Diapason
Esfahani is the poet of the harpsichord. For people who don’t like harpsichordists he is the one that will convince you to listen. He’s such a beautiful player and he is totally natural. He understands the dramatics of each movement and he projects it and, for me, it is totally persuasive.
Richard Morrison, BBC CD Review
The Pièces de Clavecin (1724) and Nouvelle Suites de Pièces de Clavecin (c1729-30) [are] brilliant displays of wit and invention…Mahan Esfahani brings such portrayals vividly to life, and also offers sparkling accounts of less exotic items, such as the 1729 A minor suite's sad, dignified Allemande and fragile Sarabande…The set opens with the single-suite Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin (1707), so all of Rameau's essential solo works are included; and, thanks to Esfahani's persuasive and charming advocacy, they sound utterly entrancing here.
Graham Lock, Early Music Today
The Composer Years were Jean-Philippe Rameau's (250th anniversary of his death) and C.P.E. Bach's (300th birth anniversary), and breaking harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani proved nothing short of revelatory in the music of both. His recording of Rameau's complete Pieces de clavecin (Hyperion) makes it clear that he's the equal of Christophe Rousset in this repertoire, and very much his own man. And his Hyperion CD of the second-greatest Bach's Wuerttemberg Sonatas was widely considered the best of the C.P.E. celebrations.
Tim Pfaff, The Bay Area Reporter
C.P.E. Bach, Benda, JG Graun Recital
Brecon Baroque (October 2014)
The tercentenary of the birth of Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was an added festival focus, and it’s a mark of its present calibre that no less a figure than harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani should give a recital with violinist Bojan Čičić. They brought finesse, virtuosity and insight to sonatas for violin and viola d’amore by Franz Benda and JG Graun as well as CPE Bach.
Esfahani embodies the latter’s trademark expressive and sensitive Empfindsamer Stil, but this concert will also be unforgettable for his bewitching performance of the Harpsichord Sonata in F Sharp Minor, abruptly halted when a lady in the front row collapsed in a faint. Esfahani helped others lift her from the floor and carry her out. After returning to reassure the audience, he duly completed the final allegro. The gesture was another facet of the great humanity he brings to his music-making.
Rian Evans, The Guardian
J.S. Bach Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1)
Kilkenny Arts Festival, St John’s Priory (August 2015)
Esfahani, who was born in Tehran in 1984, makes music like someone who has an old head on young shoulders. He played the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier over two recitals as if there were nothing to be shown except the music itself, at once abstract and concrete, sober and flamboyant.
Michael Dervan, The Irish Times
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 the Library of Congress
Washington DC (April 2014)
Whenever the music offered fast-moving scales and figuration, as in J.S. Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue,” Esfahani ran with it, his agile fingers making remarkably clean and accurate contact with every key.
Charles T. Downey, The Washington Post
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’ - *****)
He combines giddying technique with a supple rhythmic pacing and a huge variety of colour [...] If anybody embodies the future of this instrument, it’s Esfahani.
Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
Mahan Esfahani - sample programmes
|Sample solo recital programmes|
|Concerto repertoire list|
|Sample programmes with Adam Walker (flute)|
|Sample programmes with Liza Ferschtman (violin)|
|Sample programmes with Michala Petri (recorder)|