Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichord

"With an instinctive sense of rhythm and a gift for interpretation, Esfahani has firmly established himself as one of today’s most thrilling harpsichordists."

Gramophone

"Such virtuosity and disarming presentation suggests that Esfahani could inspire a whole new appreciation of the instrument."

The Guardian

"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."

Keyboard Magazine

"...daring and fiery performances..."

The Times

"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."

Kölner Stadtanzeiger

"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 Guardian

"Exhaustingly brilliant."

The New York Times

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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, Carnegie Hall in NYC, Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Recital Centre, Los Angeles's Walt Disney COncert Hall, 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, Ensemble Modern, BBC Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, Auckland Philharmonia, Czech Radio Symphony, Orquesta de Navarra, Malta Philharmonic, Orchestra La Scintilla, Aarhus Symphony, Montreal’s Les Violons du Roy, Hamburg Symphony, Munich Chamber Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with whom he was an artistic partner for 2016-2018.

His richly-varied discography includes seven critically-acclaimed recordings for Hyperion and Deutsche Grammophon – garnering one Gramophone award, two BBC Music Magazine Awards, a Diapason d’Or and ‘Choc de Classica’ in France, and an ICMA.

Esfahani studied musicology and history at Stanford University, where he first came into contact with the harpsichord in the class of Elaine Thornburgh. Following his decision to abandon the law for music, he studied harpsichord privately 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, as well as in live programmes with the popular mathematician and presenter Marcus du Sautoy; for the BBC’s Sunday Feature he is currently at work on his fourth radio documentary following two popular programmes on such subjects as the early history of African-American composers in the classical sphere and the development of orchestral music in Azerbaijan. 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.

Poul Ruders: Harpsichord concerto

OUR Recordings (9.70896) / released May 2022

A century ago, harpsichords were generally regarded as interesting silvery creatures pushed out of history by the rise of the piano. That’s scarcely true today, not with the growth of the period instrument movement, nor with the rise of Mahan Esfahani, the dynamic Iranian-American who believes the harpsichord should stop at nothing, not even a minimalist milestone such as Steve Reich’s Piano Phase.

Esfahani particularly welcomes new concertos for his instrument...[Ruders'] new work [is] a modern twist on the baroque concerto model... the harpsichord delights in suave melodies; decorative flourishes, too. Matters calm down in the worried beauties of the magical slow movement, where Ruders’ ear for colour and texture is particularly acute. Elsewhere in this live recording of the work’s 2020 premiere, Esfahani’s sparkle and energy meet their match in the spry sounds of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the Finnish maverick Leif Segerstam. All in all, I emerged from listening feeling refreshed and very clean, as if I’d just stepped out of a hot shower.

Geoff Brown, The Times **** *Classical Album of the Week*

There’s almost a ‘fairy-tale’ story to the Harpsichord Concerto itself. One day in 2019, as Ruders switched on his computer, up popped a commission from the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, for a new piece for harpsichord and orchestra – which would feature leading international virtuoso, Mahan Esfahani. The rest, they say, is history.

Mahan Esfahani’s playing is simply breath-taking throughout. Ruders impressively-idiomatic writing for the harpsichord is centred on Esfahani’s prodigious skill and virtuosity, as well as his all-embracing sense of musical architecture, expressive niceties, and incredible feel for detail. It might, therefore, be felt that a bespoke concerto like this would fit the player like a well-tailored suit, but if you listen to Esfahani’s video, he confirms just how very difficult the work is, in every respect. His prodigious talents, however, are such that he is able to surmount every technical challenge, effectively belying its obvious difficulty.

Philip R Buttall, MusicWeb International

Mahan Esfahani is one of the most sought-after harpsichordists of our time, who, in addition to the technical requirements, has the necessary curiosity and musical intuition to perform such a composition. Therefore he succeeds in an exciting and intensive interpretation.

Pizzicato *****

Bent Sørensen harpsichord concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Birmingham, April 2022 (UK premiere)

An exquisite, often hauntingly sad work...the concerto itself seems to hide a free-floating melancholy beneath an exterior of refined and sometimes brilliant colour... the harpsichord writing had its share of virtuoso flourishes (Esfahani reached inside his instrument to draw sweeping glissandi across its strings), but overall, seemed focused more on its performer’s questioning intelligence than on anything as predictable as mere display. Esfahani worried away at fragments of bristling mock-baroque passagework, set in opposition to the orchestra’s kaleidoscopic shifts. Or he suddenly locked onto a trumpet or woodwind phrase, giving a weird, brittle phosphorescence to the overall sonority. A scherzo and a fughetta glittered and bustled: in the finale, squealing trumpets, like predatory seabirds, seemed briefly to have the upper hand, leaving Esfahani’s last word – a descent onto an unaccompanied final note – to feel all the more conclusive.

Esfahani returned after the interval with CPE Bach’s D major keyboard concerto Wq18, and the audience’s response suddenly lifted from polite bewilderment to the kind of unabashed enthusiasm – complete with whoops and cheers – that dear old Emmanuel probably last encountered back in Potsdam round about the time Frederick the Great annexed Silesia. Esfahani gilded Bach’s writing in sumptuous colours, with sweet-toned melodies unfurling over angular, black-and bronze left-hand figuration, plus occasional, teasing little tugs at the tempo to assert (as appropriate) a phrase’s subversive potential or aristocratic swagger.

Richard Bratby, The Arts Desk ****

Chamber Music with the New World Symphony

New World Center, Miami Beach (December 2021)

Titled “Harpsichord Hero,” the concert was a brilliant showcase for Mahan Esfahani, one of today’s leading exponents of the instrument...Esfahani illustrated his instrument’s versatility in Oophaa for harpsichord and percussion by Romanian-Greek avant-gardist Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). In this work the harpsichord vies with unpitched percussion instruments, including flower pots, in a totally forceful, non-melodic manner.

Lawrence Budmen, South Florida Classical Review

Los Angeles Philharmonic solo recital

Walt Disney Concert Hall (December 2021)

Exquisite beyond measure...much about the harpsichord — as Mahan Esfahani, today’s best known harpsichordist, marvelously demonstrated in his Disney recital — is curiously liberating. The lightness of touch stimulates flights of fancy. In his program note, Esfahani likens the effect of the harpsichord to that of sketches and etchings by great painters.

...Esfahani ended his recital with a lacy Purcell encore, “Ground in C Minor.” But he ended his program note with the promise that next time he comes back to L.A., it will be for an evening of new and modern music. It may not be all that different. Old or new, Esfahani can make one thankful to abide a thankless instrument. There might even be a life lesson in that act.

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

Cambridge Music Festival solo recital

Downing College (October 2021)

Anyone who was present is unlikely to forget Mahan Esfahani’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the Cambridge Summer Music Festival two years ago. Iranian-born Esfahani, who has set out to promote the harpsichord to what he believes is its rightful place among concert instruments, is a prodigy of the keyboard whose astonishing abilities, demonstrated on that occasion, were once again on display at the current Cambridge Music Festival. Of worldwide renown he is one of the greatest performers on the harpsichord, and indeed one of the outstanding living instrumentalists.

The whole, and to a layman well-nigh impossibly demanding repertoire, presented Esfahani with not the slightest of difficulties. The audience was simply left agog at this genius of the instrument.

From the delicacy of touch he achieved in the C. P. E. Bach Sonata in G minor, and the exquisite Kuhnau sonata (No.6 in B flat major), to the power which made the modest-looking harpsichord sound sometimes like an organ, sometimes even an entire orchestra, Esfahani gave the lie to the received opinion that the piano makes possible tones and colours forever denied to a harpsichord whose strings, being plucked, allow no room for subtlety of interpretation.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 903), one of J.S.Bach’s most famous works, may have been played equally as well, but is unlikely ever to have been played better than in Esfahani’s performance, where his diamond precision and his amazing technique seemed to find new meanings and dimensions in the approach that he took to this imaginative toccata and its well-balanced fugue.

Esfahani’s sense of timing here, and elsewhere, was perhaps no more obviously a prominent gift of his playing than that displayed in the concluding French Overture (BWV 831) with its array of dance measures derived from the elegant style of French masters such as Lully and Couperin, great influences on the German tradition. Esfahani’s rhythmic vitality, his precision and confidence all coalesced to deliver an almost perfect rendition of this most challenging of Bach’s keyboard compositions.

A ‘speechless’ audience, though loudly vocal in its calls for more and more, brought Esfahani back to encore with, as he said, ‘a work by Henry Purcell’. This was no towering virtuosic reprise, simply an undemonstrative, brief but exquisitely executed, lyrical piece from an extraordinarily accomplished musician. An occasion where there is nothing to fault can only be enjoyed. And this was one of those occasions.

John Gilroy, Cambridge Independent

Mahan Esfahani - sample programmes

Concerto repertoire list

Mahan Esfahani Concerto Repertoire

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