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, 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.

BBC Prom with the Manchester Collective

Royal Albert Hall (August 2021)

A high energy Proms debut [for the Manchester Collective]...Mahan Esfahani's playing was punchy and brilliant

Andrew Clements, The Guardian

The playing was incisive and lively all evening and, as Szabo put it, it’s great to have music at the Proms by female and non-dead people. More like this one, please, BBC.

David Karlin, Bachtrack ****

Music for harpsichord and strings ranges from the fierce to the festive...The programme was bookended by harpsichord concertos, played by the charismatic Mahan Esfahani. Henryk Górecki’s, from 1980, is uncompromising and unremitting, playing with ideas of baroque music in a minimalist manner. There is none of the interplay of orchestra and soloist familiar from the classical concerto: here they plough their own furrow, harpsichordist doing frantic finger-exercises and the strings in an inscrutable unison. Esfahani handled the endless repeated chords (a terrifying technical challenge) with energy and enthusiasm.

Bernard Hughes, The Arts Desk

An epic night. Wild rhythms and visceral textures from the Manchester Collective – their debut at the BBC Proms – and Mahan Esfahani...There was a rock-gig feel to Mahan Esfahani’s keyboard work in Gorecki’s Harpischord Concerto, the music of which holds absolutely no prisoners with a driving incessant rhythm. The rust-like feel in the combined textures of harpischord and strings gave proceedings a creepy edge. The frenzied cacophony had a tinge of madness about it that was magnetic and repellant. Music that brings about strong contradictory emotions. Efficient writing. Electrifying playing.

Thoroughly Good

Henryk Górecki is best known for his contemplative works, but his 1980 Harpsichord Concerto is anything but. Two relentlessly busy movements of breathtakingly sustained Minimalist rhythm (think the love child of Nyman and Reich) had the audience drilled to their seats, and the soloist, the peerless Mahan Esfahani, jumping up and down on his stool to deliver a barrage of schrecklicher chromatic chords...Joseph Horovitz’ Jazz Harpsichord Concerto is a work that needs a lot more exposure. A concerto grosso for harpsichord, drums and string bass masquerading as a tour de force of hot 60s jazz riffs, it herds Swingles, Jacques Loussier and Brubeck into an entire cattery of cool rhythmic contrasts.

Barry Creasy, MusicOMH (4.5*)

Esfahani and the Manchester Collective brought real excitment to [Gorecki's Harpsichord Concerto] with a sound which filled the Royal Albert Hall.

Planet Hugill, *****

One of the most thrilling Proms I’ve ever attended... Esfahani is sometimes described as genre-busting in his campaign to keep the harpsichord and its repertoire current. But maybe the other way round works just as well. Hearing tonight how vibrant and natural the harpsichord sounds in so many different contexts suggests to me that barriers between styles, eras and genres are simply those we erect ourselves for no reason – resulting in the joy and surprise we felt as the Manchester Collective kicked them down.

Artmuse London

Esfahani’s playing in both pieces was magisterial...Every work on the concert was given a performance whose obvious understanding of and enthusiasm for the music and generosity of music making was matched by the meticulous preparation and flawless performance. The whole concert was enjoyable and memorable.

Rodney Lister, Sequenza21

Recital with Dame Sarah Connolly

Wigmore Hall (June 2021)

In Connolly and Esfahani’s concert, the brow was always high. It ventured into emotional areas that were sometimes darkly ambiguous, sometimes melancholic, sometimes nervily changeable. We heard an extraordinary contemporary arrangement of John Dowland’s song ‘Come, Heavy Sleep’, in which Connolly’s rich voice traced Dowland’s original melody in serene defiance of Esfahani’s atonal thickets of sound. Here and in the group of four Purcell songs, Esfahani forsook his harpsichord to accompany Connolly on the piano, which he did with subtle touch and pedalling. They seemed as if they’d been performing together for years.

In contrast to these songs were Esfahani’s harpsichord pieces, which teased us by being enigmatic: the strangely involuted Overture to Orpheus by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, the spiky wit of the Two Pieces by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. Oddest of all was a sonata by WF Bach, the oldest and most wayward of the more famous Bach’s sons. It seemed to change mood and direction in mid-phrase, an effect Esfahani captured as eloquently with his body language as his fingers. Finally, singer and harpsichordist came together for the delicate wit of Michael Tippett’s Songs for Ariel...engrossing and performed with consummate artistry.

Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph ****

The Six Partitas, Hyperion (CDA68311/2)

released 28 May 2021

Bach’s six keyboard partitas are essentially suites of 18th-century dance forms with distinctive rhythms, each preceded by an introduction. Mr. Esfahani renders them with super-charged technical flair and a point of view. In the opening Toccata of the sixth partita, his tempo is slower than most, but the momentum never sags, and his playing is expressive. His jubilant take on the Capriccio of the second partita captures the maniacal quality in much of Bach’s most virtuosic writing. The harpsichordist’s performance of the third partita goes from strength to strength: touchingly wistful in the Allemande, stately in the Sarabande and vibrant in the Burlesca, where imaginative registration choices for some chords accent the section’s jaunty, humorous character.

Sarah Jepson, Wall Street Journal

Part of the startling immediacy and modernity of Mahan Esfahani's performances comes from the range of sounds his modern harpsichord can produce, with its rich bass register … but also the breadth of Esfahani's imagination, his sense of theatre, his willingness to explore and experiment. It might be too much for some, but it'll be a revelation to others

BBC Record Review

Esfahani is a passionate performer rather than a scholarly purist and chooses the readings, like his choice of instrument, that make most musical sense to him—the sources he has consulted are all listed … the instrument delivers a smooth and homogenous performance under Esfahani’s nimble fingers, and—as always—his readings, as well as his playing, challenges many of the more conventional ‘period instrument’ assumptions … I recommend this recording not just for its well-argued and committed performances but for Esfahani’s challenging approach. He is on the way to recording all Bach’s keyboard for Hyperion, and if you like his style they will be well worth watching out for

David Stancliffe, Early Music Review

Manchester Collective project

UK tour (May 2021)

A bold, perception-challenging programme of rich textural contrasts, every note illuminated by these incomparable musicians...Esfahani brings his unique musicianship to a far broader repertoire than one might usually associate with his period instrument...[Horovitz's Jazz Concerto] was the scintillating climax to a memorable evening.


Geoffrey Mogridge, Ilkley Gazette

JS Bach - Well Tempered Clavier Book 1

Wigmore Hall stream (April 2021)

This was a mighty achievement... The complete Book 1 of JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier — all two hours, all 24 preludes and fugues of it. Who knows whether the baroque master intended it to be performed in one sitting, but Mahan Esfahani made it a gripping experience...As we cycled through all 12 major and minor keys, the sense of journeying gathered pace, the wondrous interplay of notes became more and more enthralling.


...In tempo, articulation and colouring each piece had real character, be it joyful, reverential, playful, scholarly, lamenting or light-hearted. Esfahani both revelled in improvisatory freedom and intelligently led us through thickets of fugal writing. Plentiful rubato highlighted expressive points. And then there was his bespoke harpsichord, whose range of colour he deftly exploited, evoking sounds from lute to organ...

At the end, a surprise. The B minor fugue uses an ingenious subject featuring all 12 chromatic notes, evolving into the longest fugue in the set. After the last note, Bach wrote “Fine” and “S.D.G.” — Soli Deo Gloria, the motto with which he customarily signed all his works. This is very clearly the finish. Not here. Just as Bach brought back the opening Aria at the end of his Goldberg Variations, Esfahani returned to the very first prelude. Its key of C major felt brighter than ever, its freshness like a new dawn. It wasn’t what Bach wrote, but it made the evening complete

Rebecca Franks, The Times ****

Mahan Esfahani - sample programmes

Concerto repertoire list

Mahan Esfahani Concerto Repertoire

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