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

Download full biography

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.

Leipzig Bachfest solo recital

Leipzig, June 2022

Mahan Esfahani performs a sparkling evening concert at the Bachfest Leipzig...an inspiring concert experience and probably a highlight of this year's Bach Festival...Mahan Esfahani's lets virtuosic runs sparkle, and he understands how to shape phrases like a relaxing walk in the gardens of Versailles (Sarabande), phrased in disciplined structured sentences...Mahan Esfahani has an electrifying touch, knows how to place accents, and yet, he keeps the singing character of the harpsichord.

In JS Bach's Toccata in D minor (BWV 913) and in D major (BWV 912) as well as the Fantasy and Fugue in A minor (BWV 904), the Iranian-American-Czech harpsichordist reveals the complex multi-faceted structures, and he makes it come across just as manifold as it does on an Organ. The organ friends must be excited to experience this!

Any more discoveries? Girloamo Frescobaldi is a legendary composer, however his works are rarely heard! The Capriccio sopra la Bassa Fiammenga (F 4.05) leaves one amazed and makes one ask, why is it so? Are Frescobaldis works too difficult, or is there a lack of curiousity to explore his music? This playful and lively piece leaves nothing to the imagination in terms of strings of sparkling notes.

Wolfram Quellmalz, Neue Musikalische Blaetter

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

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

For an example of a mindful variety of mechanical, listen to his rapid-fire take on the first partita’s Gigue—a good reference point for the swifter, toccata-like Allemande earlier in the suite. The opening Sinfonia of the Partita No 2 in C Minor is glorious, the spacious, spread chord of the first bar establishing a dramatic tension which underpins the subsequent faster sections of the movement. Well-dramatised, too, are relationships among movements, such as those among the flowing Fantasia, the busy Corrente, the transparent Sarabande, the bustling Burlesca and the exciting Gigue in the Partita No 3 in E Minor. Which sets up the sunny, tirade-streaked Ouverture in the following Partita No 4 in D just nicely. And its bittersweet cousin, the Sarabande in the same suite.

Some of the best playing here can be found in Esfahani’s improvisatory and beautifully characterised account of the fifth Partita’s Praeambulum—which again points ahead to the sixth Partita’s opening Toccata, as thrilling an account as you’re likely to hear anywhere.

Will Yeoman, Limelight Magazine ****.5

For his recording of Bach’s Partitas, Mahan Esfahani uses a harpsichord built by the workshop of Jukka Ollikka in Prague, which conveys a brightness and definition that mirrors the performer’s absorbing and occasionally unconventional interpretations.

...Esfahani's imagination particularly flourishes in the Sarabande, where the harpsichordist’s elasticity of phrase and ear-catching embellishments up the music’s expressive ante while illuminating its dance origins... [He] sets an intimate, conversational tone in the Third Partita’s Allemande, where his sophisticated legato finger technique generates uncommon harmonic tension...Esfahani’s decisions regarding tempos and articulation throughout each of the Fourth Partita’s movements add up to one of this big work’s most satisfying recorded interpretations, highlighted by a hypnotic, deliberately unfolding Allemande. The Fifth Partita’s striking features include unusual yet convincing fermatas over the rests in the Praeambulum’s opening bars and the Tempo di minuetta’s alluringly blended registration.

It’s refreshing to hear the fugue of the Sixth Partita’s Toccata so beautifully rounded and embellished, as well as how Esfahani relishes the Sarabande’s dissonances. As for the question of playing the Gigue’s main theme in duple or triple metre, Esfahani serves it up both ways. Clearly his pursuit of scholarship never lapses into pedantry either as performer or annotator...There’s no questioning Esfahani’s inquiring musical mind and absolute mastery of his instrument.

Jed Distler, Gramophone Magazine

If the first volume of Mahan Esfahani’s foray into Bach’s keyboard music showcased the youthful flamboyance of the Toccatas, the sequel embraces a composer pushing at the boundaries of the suite, upscaling its possibilities through an encyclopaedic assault buttressed by assorted national styles, compositional techniques old and new and an array of ‘Galantieren’ ranging from Rondeau and Capriccio to Burlesca and Scherzo. All keyboard life is there, and they raise plenty of issues for a performer. Esfahani is keen to tackle them head on, and his liner notes make for required reading … Trevor Pinnock (on Hänssler) or Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi) offer less idiosyncratic readings, but then Esfahani has never been one to play it safe. BWV 825’s ‘Menuet 1’ has the solidity of a bürgermeister mindful of his respectability, but its da capo positively boogies, darting embellishments doing the not-so-heavy lifting... At its pungent best, Esfahani’s joie de vivre can be uniquely captivating.

Paul Riley, BBC Music Magazine, performance **** recording *****

I’ve always admired Mahan Esfahani as one of the finest keyboard players of his generation. This latest recording in his Bach solo keyboard cycle, the Six Partitas published as Clavier-Übung I, once again reasserts 'his interpretive flair, expressive freedom and meticulous scholarship'...

...The opening Grave adagio of the Sinfonia of the Partita No 2 in C minor, played slower than most, but sounding wonderfully improvised and free. He then goes on to inject energy and sparkle into the two-part fugue which ends the movement, delivering it with such clarity and precision.

The Praeludium in the Partita No 1 in B flat is nicely paced, refined and elegant, with the Corrente airborne and buoyant. The Sarabande proceeds with great nobility of gesture, with the florid melody expressive and the trills beautifully contoured. He plays the Giga briskly without sacrificing precision and clarity in the hand-crossing. The Partita No 4 is both noble and intimate. The French Ouverture is a majestic curtain raiser on proceedings with its double-dotting, trills and flourishes. The long lines of the Allemande which follow are expressive and intimate, contrasting startlingly with the brusque articulation of the Courante. Esfahani makes some potent colour registration variants in the repeats.

These are compelling and imaginative readings, both bold and convincing, captured in superb sound.

Stephen Greenbank, MusicWeb International

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

World class...Two and a half hours in the company of J.S. Bach, a harpsichord and Mahan Esfahani - the extremely sharp Iranian / American harpsichordist... It is brain music that has obviously been processed by Esfahani's brain cells. He knows what he wants with the music and not least why.

Jeppe Rönnow, Anmeldelse ****

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

Mahan Esfahani - sample programmes

Concerto repertoire list

Mahan Esfahani Concerto Repertoire

Commission repertoire list

Mahan Esfahani commission repertoire list

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