"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). In 2022, he became the youngest recipient of the Wigmore Medal, in recognition of his significant contribution and longstanding relationship with the Hall.
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 two ICMAs.
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.
Recital at Bath Bachfest
Bath Guildhall, Feb 2024
The next day, harpsichord superstar Mahan Esfahani played a programme of Handel (Suite No 2 in F major), Buxtehude (La Capricciosa) and JS Bach (English Suite No 6 in D minor). The expressivity of the Handel and the sheer virtuosity of the Buxtehude – a set of variations in which Esfahani seemingly turned a million black dots into a murmuration – led, with well-judged logic, to the Bach: palindromes, enigmas and a “mirror” fugue to make your head hurt (despite Esfahani’s lucid advance explanation), but finally, and unquestionably, best heard as music.
Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian *****
The French Suites, Hyperion (CDA68401)
Released October 2023
Mahan Esfahani’s extensive, often entertaining notes explain the decisions behind this new recording including variants and additions alongside all the familiar movements. A main beneficiary is the fourth suite in E flat that gains an improvisatory prelude, a second gavotte and a minuet. Esfahani also includes what he describes as three ‘Orphan Suites’, comprising works connected to Bach either by a single ascription, as in the G minor Suite, or via the copies of pupils, presumably based on their teacher’s work. Whatever their provenance, the music rarely disappoints.
All credit to Esfahani for this carefully prepared recording...there is much to enjoy in playing that displays poise and expressive nuance as well as virtuosity...enjoyable performances of the first three French Suites and two of the ‘Orphan Suites’ on a clavichord with a modest, but expressive dynamic range that admirably suits the delightful intimacy of these works.
Jan Smaczny, BBC Music Magazine
If the clavichord added a sense of intimacy to the earlier recording, here its more quicksilver touch has had a profound impact on the interpretation, including those works played on the harpsichord. The music feels more vocal, especially when the performer avails himself of the dynamic shading of the clavichord but also in the extension of melodic lines into more lyrical shapes on the harpsichord. Ornamentation is different, too, slightly extended for greater internal shape and nuance, rather than explosive or gestural additions to the line. Listen to the Sarabande of the D minor First Suite, in which he deploys small decrescendos as the top line rises, suggesting not just the human voice, but the human voice doing one of its most miraculous feats: scaling down as it rises up, registering frailty, uncertainty or pleading.
Philip Kennicott, Gramophone Magazine
The sound [of the clavichord] is so seductive; the delicacy, the gentle chirpiness, the almost reedy timbre at times, and the way the notes sometimes bend under the finger pressure. And then there’s Esfahani’s fragrant ornamentation and embellishment, so beautifully integrated with Bach’s lines, the feeling that the music is coming fresh from his and Bach’s imagination—so intimate—before what Mahan calls the ‘rich snarl’ of his modern hybrid harpsichord in some of the suites. The whole album seems as though it’s been designed to question our assumptions and prejudices in the most enlightening way
BBC Record Review
If the clavichord added a sense of intimacy to the earlier recording [of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena], here its more quicksilver touch has had a profound impact on the interpretation, including those works played on the harpsichord
The best years of the harpsichord are still ahead of it—even though too many people mistakenly consider it to be a relic of the Baroque. This appears to be Mahan Esfahani’s working assumption, since, alongside commissioning and recording new music for his instrument, he’s also actively engaged in recording the complete keyboard works of JS Bach—with all the freshness he brings to modern composition. Here, you feel as though Esfahani has ingested the French Suites whole, and that his performances, split between harpsichord and clavichord, are a real-time working-out of how to mould Bach contrapuntal nests so as to reveal their inner lyricism. This is playing of daredevil spontaneity, backed up by intense scholarly discipline.
Philip Clark, Prospect Magazine
Everything sings, everything dances, I breathe and I savour the art of this genius of the harpsichord
Corellimania, OUR Recordings (6220682) with Hille Perl and Michala Petri
Released 13th October 2023
Few [discs focussing on Arcangelo Corelli] make for such a consistently gripping and gorgeous listen as this one does. This is a delectable combination of instruments: the slightly rugged tonal richness and depth of Hille Perle’s 1686 Matthias Alban viola da gamba, meeting the sparkling whoomph of Esfahani’s double-manual Kramer-built Italian harpsichord, and Michala Petri’s assortment of Baroque recorders (A=415) by Swiss maker Heinz Ammann...For an entirely different-coloured example of how brilliantly the three instruments and musical personalities blend and bounce off each other, I also can’t get enough of Telemann’s Sonata Corellisante No 2 in A, where Petri is on a sweet-toned soprano, against the glow of Perl in her own soprano registers and Esfahani’s luminous harpsichord. This is a radiant reading, full of tight, sprightly dialogue, its Allemande and closing Corrente the scenes of some of the entire programme’s most ravishing displays of silkily perfect recorder virtuosity and suavely sparky gamba shaping and ornamentation – driven, as across the album, by the sense of energy and intellectual spring radiating out from the direction of the harpsichord.
Three cheers, then, for Esfahani’s solo turn, Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in B flat, HWV434, voiced with such buoyant, rhetorically freewheeling ease that it sounds almost as if the harpsichord is playing itself, and with the Aria variations sitting as its crowning glory – a gradually accelerating crescendo of merrily magnificent excitement that feels on the one hand like a finger in the direction of period-appropriate sophistication (for reference, perhaps give Schiff’s elegant version a spin), and on the other hand, even more sophisticated.
Charlotte Gardner, Gramophone
In interpretations of great virtuosity, the ensemble provides beautiful phrasing and ornamentation in this spontaneous performance. In addition to much lively vivacity, the music also contains sunshine, grace and, at times, a very southern melancholy...The result is atmospheric and lively music-making that captivates with its atmospheric density. Mahan Esfahani shines with an expressive interpretation in Handel’s solo suite HWV 434.
Recital with the Escher Quartet
Rockport Chamber Music Festival
Mahan Esfahani, an approachable wizard of the harpsichord, conveyed with immediacy why he had become spellbound by the instrument. His playing and communication—alone and with the Escher (String) Quartet—for the Rockport Chamber Music on Sunday were nothing short of stunning...The unusual choices of repertoire, particularly the world premiere of Composer-in-Residence Mark Applebaum’s October 1582, for solo harpsichord, and a few other surprises, made for a remarkable concert...
The final concert segment hailed from the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080) written in Eisenach, Germany, at the very end of Bach’s life. Here the arrangement for string quartet and harpsichord ended with a fade out, as Bach left it uncompleted...
Mahan Esfahani and the Escher String Quartet, together with innovators such as Mark Applebaum, are ensuring the harpsichord’s continuing relevance.
Julie Ingelfinger, Boston Musical Intelligencer
Notebooks for Anna Magdalena, Hyperion (CDA68387) with Carolyn Sampson
Released 5th May 2023
This partnership works well, doesn’t it—Esfahani’s delicate fingerwork and expressive ingenuity on harpsichord and clavichord, and his spontaneous flourishes and attractive ornamentation, combined with the simplicity and accuracy of Sampson’s soprano. Intimate entertainment of the highest quality
BBC Record Review
Mahan Esfahani and Carolyn Sampson open the household doors with a generous selection of pieces from the 1725 notebook... What an unfailingly delightful compilation it is, featuring keyboard galanteries, chorale melodies with or without voice and a wide variety of arias...Esfahani's choice of instrument for each piece, whether clavichord or harpsichord, is well judged...an enchanting programme, affectionately and intimately performed
Nicholas Anderson, BBC Music Magazine - performance ****, recording ****
Mahan Esfahani makes a lot of sense of this delightful compendium of domestic musical miscellanea in a recording that shows a more intimate side to his playing."
Philip Kennicott, Gramophone Magazine *Critics Choice 2023*
Martinů, Krása & Kalabis: Harpsichord Concertos, Hyperion (CDA68397)
Released 3rd February 2023
I may be genetically conditioned to adore this repertoire, but this new album from Mahan Esfahani is an unalloyed joy from first chord to last. Martinů, Krása and Kalabis all on one programme: what’s not to like? Of course, sometimes expectations run wild ahead of actuality, but not here. If I encounter an album as good as this one this year I will be overjoyed!
...Martinů’s music almost always smiles good-naturedly, but in this beautifully nimble account it positively beams. The accompanying ensemble is relatively modest – eight strings, flute, bassoon and piano (played by Ivo Kahánek, no less) – but what other composer would create a chamber concerto for harpsichord with an orchestral piano nestling in the accompaniment? Esfahani and conductor Alexander Liebreich achieve a remarkably balanced, warm sound, each line and texture precise and needle-sharp...
Hindemith did not, so far as I am aware, write for the harpsichord, but had he penned a chamber concerto for it in the 1920s or ’30s it would surely have sounded much like Hans Krása’s delightful diptych for harpsichord and seven instruments (1936). Bearing the Hindemithian title of Kammermusik, it was partly based on a song Krása had composed a few years before. On first hearing, there is a feeling of incompleteness, as if a robust finale somehow failed to materialise, but familiarity shows that Krása got it spot on.
Spot on well describes the final and largest item here, Viktor Kalabis’s 1975 Concerto for his wife (and Esfahani’s teacher and mentor), the late, great Zuzana RůŽičková. Esfahani writes so movingly in the booklet of the composer and this most personal of his works, and it is magnificently played, every bit as splendid as RůŽičková’s and Kalabis’s own account (Supraphon, 7/13) – but with finer sound – and more than a match for Jory Vinikour’s fine if occasionally more cautious rival (Cedille, 10/19). Here, as throughout, the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra’s accompaniment is sensitive and ideal, and Esfahani plays like an angel.
Guy Rickards, Gramophone
Esfahani makes sparks fly as ancient meets modern...Three 20th century Czech pieces for the harpsichord are full of lively interest in this new recording with Alexander Liebreich and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra.
You would hear some robust words from Mahan Esfahani if you dared suggest the harpsichord wasn’t an attractive solo instrument for a concerto – but even he will admit that in the 20th century it took a special kind of composer to write one for it. The latest addition to Esfahani’s eclectic discography highlights three of them, all Czech, all grappling in their time with how to make something modern using an instrument so strongly associated with the past. It’s an ear-opening recording...
There’s a sense that Martinů and Krása both had fun writing their pieces, whereas the concerto Viktor Kalabis composed in 1975 for his wife, Zuzana Růžičková – Esfahani’s teacher – was something he had to write. This has the scope of a grand piano concerto, and between two expansively driven movements there’s a bleak, wide-open slow one in which time stops. In all three works, Esfahani’s unfussy yet attention-grabbing playing strikes sparks off the musicians of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and their conductor, Alexander Liebreich.
Erica Jeal, The Guardian ****
Nor is there anything stale about Mahan Esfahani. His crusades for his instrument, the harpsichord, know no bounds, and this album of 20th-century Czech repertoire, vividly recorded in Prague with top Czech musicians, keeps springing surprises. From the 1930s, Martinů's concerto starts with neoclassical clatter, then widens its attractions, while pungent delights never end in the stylistic pot-pourri of Hans Krása's Kammermusik. Balancing things out, Viktor Kalabis’s 1975 concerto offers muscular strength and painful feelings. Throughout Esfahani’s fingers never stop sparkling; he should commission an opera, “The Magic Harpsichord”.
Geoff Brown, The Times ****
Martinů's writing for the instrument is remarkably idiomatic and delivered here by Mahan Esfahani with poise and elegance. The elements of Baroque pastiche are striking and beautifully integrated...Krása's Kammermusik for harpsichord and chamber instruments is much more modernist...the instrumental colouring, particularly in this well-balanced performance, is undeniably beguiling...These excellent and committed performances get to the heart of these fascinating works.
Jan Smaczny, BBC Music Magazine - performance *****, recording ****
The harpsichord is difficult to balance against a modern orchestra, and it’s fun hearing how three 20th century Czech composers approach the challenge. Martinů’s 1935 Concerto for harpsichord and small orchestra is an effervescent jewel, the soloist pitted against a small ensemble including piano. Hearing the two keyboard instruments conversing in the pithy first movement is a delight. The six-minute finale is echt-Martinů, opening like a concertino for piano and chamber orchestra before soloist Mahan Esfahani enters, immediately racing off at a tangent. If you love this composer (if you don’t, you really should), this disc is mandatory listening...
Viktor Kalabis was the composer husband of the great Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková. She died in 2017, and Esfahani was her last pupil. Kalabis’s Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra dates from 1975 and was dedicated to his wife...This large scale, three-movement work is a masterpiece. Serious, playful and gravely beautiful by turns, Esfahani sees it as a reflection of the couple’s relationship. The finale’s close is magical, Kalabis eschewing fireworks for something more mysterious and introspective. This is a wonderful anthology, brilliantly performed and recorded, with Alexander Liebreich’s Prague Radio Forces providing taut, colourful support.
Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk
Martinů’s Concerto was composed in 1935 in Paris and Esfahani and Liebreich turn in a scintillating performance... pellucid and precise, a fine recorded balance ensuring that each facet of the instrumentation is respected. In the central movement the music is sonorous and a real sense of expressive warmth is generated whilst in the finale the angularity of the themes generates a fizzing cadential passage for the harpsichord and an exuberant close...What’s so distinctive about Esfahani’s performance of the Kalabis concerto is his ability to weave together the narrative – something he does unfailingly well in the slow movement, where he may not be as searing as the dedicatee [Zuzana Růžičková,] but maintains the rhetorical narrative expertly...
Krása’s 14-minute Kammermusik of 1935 is cast in two movements...It vests the music with a crisp, functional almost impatient Hindemith-like appeal. There are big soloistic moments and elements of fanfare or preening legato in a constant play of sonority. The second movement (of two) is based on one of Krasa’s own popular songs and starts with laidback easeful insouciance before encouraging some strikingly clever writing for the harpsichord and for combinations of instruments. It’s a succinct work, memorably played...
Crisply recorded, this is a most attractive disc – thoughtful, trim, tensile and brilliantly communicative.
Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
This courageous disc, through which we get to know the appetite for repertoire of revolutionary harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, hides a masterpiece [Kalabis's Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings]...a fascinating score...Music of pure pleasure, with a touch of the surreal in the Krása.
Jean-Charles Hoffelé, Artamag
Scarlatti solo recital
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, October 2022
Scarlatti's sonatas surprise us anew - the Iranian harpsichordist found the humanity and links between works in an immaculate recital. Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas crop up regularly enough in recitals, most often in a group of four or five beginning a programme, or acting as a palate-cleanser between more substantial works. Concerts devoted exclusively to them are rare, but in doing precisely that harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani was on a mission to encourage his audience to see Scarlatti and his music on their own terms...
Of the more than 550 sonatas Scarlatti wrote, Esfahani says, more than 90% are still largely unknown, and only 30 were published in the composer’s lifetime (as “Exercises”, in 1739). Esfahani included six of those in the 19 (with two more added as an encore) that he selected for his recital, presenting them all in a single span without an interval. He played sonatas that Scarlatti clearly intended as linked pairs with scarcely any break between them, like the two in F major, Kk296 and Kk297, with which he opened, the first almost Romantically effusive, the second extrovert and unpredictable, and together making the maximum contrast with the profoundly introspective F minor Kk466 sonata that followed them, whose expression “straddles the wide expanse of life between lullaby and funeral dirge”, according to Esfahani...
The unidentified harpsichord that he was playing seemed to have been chosen for its intimately expressive qualities, allowing him to trace melodic lines in silvery filigree, and to ensure that the denser harmonies also remained lucid. But it was clear, too, that he had planned his programme so that it built steadily, with the grandest, flashiest pieces reserved for the final quarter of his 80-minute sequence, whether that was the exuberance of the C minor sonata Kk116, the brilliance of the A major Kk24, or the quasi-operatic ornamentation and key shifts of the E minor Kk263. But the published programme ended on a quieter note, with the simple aria of Kk32 in D minor, which Esfahani played with just as much care and attention to detail as he had the most imposing and demanding pieces before it – a fascinatingly conceived recital, immaculately presented.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian ****
Poul Ruders: Harpsichord concerto with the RSNO
Glasgow, October 2022 (UK premiere)
A sharp crisp performance [of] of Poul Ruders’ Concerto for Harpsichord, a work written in 2020 for the fearless Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. The joy of Ruders’ writing is that it seeks to release the instrument from its Baroque straitjacket, give it a contemporary voice, and overcome its volume limitations through subtle amplification... Esfahani’s performance captured the infectious volatility of the music, from its pulverising wildness to chiming sensitivity, its pervading obsession with repeated notes to copious liberating flights of free-flowing virtuosity. Rich and sensitive colourings from the RSNO enhanced its charming freshness.
Ken Walton, The Scotsman ****
Music meets machine...we were treated to one of the most original and mesmerising concertos I have ever heard on this stage. This was the UK premiere of Poul Ruders' Concerto for Harpsichord, co-commissioned by the RSNO and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, a piece that cheerfully upends everything we thought we knew about an instrument firmly anchored in the 18th century. We are accustomed to hearing the harpsichord against a small baroque orchestra, but not against a large symphony orchestra with a lush score, and not making any particular effort to be quiet either. For this reason, Ruders specifies amplification of his solo instrument, acknowledging in his programme note that "period-instrument fundamentalists will be horrified - the mere thought is abominable". In the event, the amplification was unobtrusive, and it certainly did not detract from the extraordinary performance by harpsichord superstar Mahan Esfahani, for whom this concerto was written. The solo part is driven forward by an almost brutal rhythmic momentum, dense chord clusters merging into an almost unearthly sound in which the musical notes are subsumed into an expression of pure percussive energy. The vision that came to mind was that of a machine grinding music much like stones being crushed in a gravel quarry. If that sounds like an unflattering comparison, it does not take into account the compelling presence of Esfahani at the keyboard, often rising from his seat in sheer exuberance, hands chasing each other up and down the keyboard. For the most part, the orchestra inhabits a different universe, providing a calm, near-romantic backdrop to Esfahani's manic energy, though the slower central movement allowed soloist and orchestra to find common ground in a cinematic interlude...It's difficult to do justice to a concerto that defies convention as thoroughly as this one, but suffice to say that it was met with a roar of approval at the end.
Esfahani treated us to an encore, an exquisitely poised Gavotte and Variations by Rameau, which reminded us of the harpsichord's principal musical constituency. That these two contrasting visions could co-exist so easily in one concert shows that adventurous programming can work when the commitment is as evident as it was on Friday night.
Christopher Lambton, Arts Desk ****
Miroslav Srnka: Harpsichord concerto with the Gürzenich Orchester Köln
September 2022, Kölner Philharmonie (World Premiere)
For years, soloist Mahan Esfahani has paved the way to bring the harpsichord into the modern age, sometimes against heavy resistance... Srnka's work displays all the joy of experimentation and virtuosity
Johannes Zink, Kölnischer Rundschau
Esfahani played the new harpsichord concerto by Czech composer Miroslav Srnka with great virtuosity...The orchestra and harpsichord are on the best of terms as partners. The harpsichord manages the gurgling and bubbling noises of the ensemble, evoking associations of an overflowing water tank... after enthusiastic applause, for which Esfahani thanked the audience with an improvised passacaglia over a ground bass to honour the recently deceased Queen.
Markus Schwering, Kölner Stadtanzeiger
Clavier-Übung II, Hyperion (CDA68336)
Released September 2022
In this recording, devoted to the two key works of Bach’s Clavierübung II – the Italian Concerto and the Overture in the French Style – Esfahani makes that independence even more explicit, greatly expanding the dynamic and expressive capacity of the harpsichord.
His particular instrument was made in 2018 in the Prague workshop of Jukka Ollikka, a double-manual showpiece with 16ft and 4ft registers for extra colour, as well as a carbon-fibre composite soundboard. It produces organ-like sonorities, especially in its lowest reaches, and Esfahani exploits its full range, including some curious and even eccentric registration choices. For those, turn first to his reading of the four duets from the Clavierübung III, more often thought of as organ works.
The expanded dynamic range of the instrument is particularly welcome in the solo-ensemble contrasts of the Italian Concerto, and is particularly effective in the illusion of a solo wind instrument from the second movement. The expanded colouristic possibilities are best heard in the capacious collection of dances from the Overture, which exploit a range of effective registration choices.
But Esfahani isn’t just showing off an instrument. His ornamentation and articulation are inventive and engaging, and will send alert listeners back to the score as the ear tries to tease out exactly what he’s doing. This is edgy, hyper-attentive playing, with rhythmic figures etched with a sharp, swift and precise stylus...
...Be sure to save special attention for the Capriccio in B flat ‘on the departure of his beloved brother’, an early work and sometimes dismissed as naive and not Bach at his mature best. Esfahani takes it seriously, finding genuine heartbreak in the slow, deliberate resolution of a simple ornament in the first movement, and powerful conflict and even terror in second and third movements (with effective realisation of the figured bass). But the concluding fugue is the pièce de résistance, turning this supposed leave-taking into a wild declaration of independence such that the recording itself becomes not just a collection of works by Bach but a performer’s manifesto.
Philip Kennicot, Gramophone Magazine
JS Bach may the great fons et origo of Western art music, but quite a few people are simply allergic to his music. If the sufferer also has an allergy to the sound of the harpsichord – again, not uncommon – then this new album of two hefty masterworks, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture, plus the four rarely heard Duets and two very early pieces might seem the most exquisite torture.
But if they try it, I’d be willing to bet it would bring them joy, as the performer is Mahan Esfahani, the Iranian-born, American-raised and now Czech-domiciled harpsichordist. Esfahani won a string of awards in his youth, including a BBC New Generation artist and Borletti-Buitoni Award. He is as passionate about contemporary harpsichord music as he is about the great pre-classical composers from Frescobaldi to CPE Bach, the familiar territory for harpsichordists from which only a few adventurous players stray.
Esfahani’s performances of Bach are dramatic and highly coloured in a way which often subverts the ideology of “period performance”, which in recent decades has been the guiding light of most harpsichordists. That ideology says: study the sources, play on exact replicas of old instruments, and above all strive to catch older styles of playing, in an effort to give listeners “what the composer wanted”. Esfahani is far too smart to be taken in by this idea, which is impossible in practice as well as being dubious in principle. He never forgets he is playing for 21st-century audiences, not a bunch of 18th-century aristocrats in an ancien régime palace. At the same time he is fascinated by old styles and old sources, and really wants to be true to the composer – in his own way.
The result is something poised tantalisingly between “then” and “now”. Many of the pieces are in dance form, but Esfahani doesn’t piously recreate the rhythm of the dance; instead he pulls the rhythms around in a way that reminds you of a great pianist moulding a Chopin waltz. Those knitting-machine fast movements are intelligently marked out by pauses, so you become aware of the grand harmonic changes beneath the incessant patter of notes. The music jumps into vivid relief, an effect magnified hugely by the prismatic variety of rich, jangling colours Esfahani conjures from his custom-made harpsichord. In the performance of Bach’s very early “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother” Esfahani adds laugh-out-loud wit and imaginative recreation to the mix. In all these performances are a marvel. Never has Bach seemed less dry and more full of fantasy.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph ***** - The best classical CDs of August and September 2022
Mahan Esfahani couldn’t make a routine recital of Bach’s keyboard music if you paid him to … what a great way to end a Bach harpsichord recital … I love that final ‘ping’ as he lifts his hands from the keys. Bach’s Italian Concerto begins the album, leaping into life with irresistible immediacy, bristling with trills and decorations like little fireworks bursting over the left hand’s propulsive leaps, and it’s easy to share the sense of satisfaction at the range of sounds Esfahani’s harpsichord produces under his fingers, recorded in a well-handled church acoustic: there’s a lovely halo around everything with no loss of detail, and the bass of the instrument fully captured. Mahan’s notes are as engaging and communicative as his playing
BBC Record Review
Since for Esfahani any performance starts from a position where everything is freshly, indeed forensically reconsidered, Clavier-Übung II offers particularly rich pickings. Bach sets out not only to demonstrate how thoroughly he understands the flagship styles of Italy and France, but also how he can bend them to his own purposes. The interpretive possibilities are catnip to the harpsichordist who proves himself stylishly bilingual … the concluding Presto [of the Italian Concerto] goes off like a rocket trailing scarcely-containable energy—the end thundering like Wanda Landowska on steroids … altogether, a challenge to complacency that can’t be ignored.
Paul Riley, BBC Music Magazine, performance ****, recording ****
Mahan Esfahani - sample programmes
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