"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, 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.
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 ****
Leipzig Bach Archive (January 2021)
Accustomed as most of us are to hearing the Goldberg Variations played on modern pianos, it is good to be reminded why Johann Sebastian Bach’s full title for the work, published in 1741, was Aria with 30 Variations for Double-Manual Harpsichord, Goldberg Variations. It was Part IV of a collection called simply Clavier Übung (keyboard exercises). When the person reminding us is the phenomenal harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, the results can be transcendent.
...Esfahani has wiped the slate clean of interpretations by harpsichordists and pianists of the current era, burrowing deeply into the essence of Bach’s music and articulating it breathtakingly while offering a fresh approach to the details.
...Technically, it is hard to believe a plucked instrument like a harpsichord can sing, but Esfahani creates the illusion, much as a guitarist does.
...Esfahani’s approach to the nine canons is especially delicious. They punctuate the proceedings every third variation, almost like a suite scattered throughout the piece; some dance, others sing, but each one feels like a continuation of the last one heard, building in complexity even as tempos vary. Variation 15 turns contemplative before the exuberance of No.16 launches the second half. Scampering merrily through the final canon (No.27) fits itself neatly into the way Bach ratchets up the gathering storm in the final five variations.
...Esfahani coaxes a range of textures from this instrument, drawing delicacy in the Andante and Adagio and springiness in the rapid tempos for others.
In all this brilliance, several variations stand out: No.5 for the way the lead hand shifts from left to right without losing a thread from the texture; the Fughetta of No.10 for its impeccable clarity as the lines intertwine; No.13 for its evocation of a guitar’s sonorities. No.23, a variation that often sounds clumsy on the modern piano, feels like rain falling delicately, lifted occasionally by the wind. The fluttering right hand of No.26 is a tour de force of dexterity and deft musicality, and the constant trilling of No.28 brings thrills.
After the burst of energy in No.29, instead of making the final Quodlibet of No.30 feel majestic, Esfahani surprises us with a halting rhythm that calls to mind an improvisation, with exaggerated rubato. This leads seamlessly into the restatement of the aria, here played with more embellishment and confidence than the opening. He is unafraid to let a phrase die away or let the music take a long breath before moving on. The final phrase finishes with a sort of droop of shoulders. After the beauty of the aria, that can break a heart.
Harvey Steinman, Seen and Heard International
Musique? Hyperion (CDA68287)
Released July 2020
Doth Mahan Esfahani protest too much? Here we have a cohesive, effective, taut programme of 20th-century harpsichord works that builds surely in density, complexity and philosophical provocation as it proceeds. In terms of programming, it’s a winner. Yet Esfahani writes not one but two barbed introductions in the booklet, one of which insists, on a noticeably staccato tone, that he must be allowed to simply play the music he wants to play at a given time. Well yes. The album’s title also wants to provoke an argument that isn’t really called for, thanks to Esfahani’s musicianship.
Kaija Saariaho’s Jardin secret II is witty and intelligent, and presents an expression of ‘intertwined distances’ far more eloquent than Abbasi’s – a teasing, meticulous game between amplified harpsichord and electronics that avoids the rhetorical or the gestural and forms a good prelude to Gavin Bryars’s theatrical After Handel’s ‘Vesper’. The piece, by its fantastical, narrative nature, is less focused than its counterparts but at least exposes the many registrations on Esfahani’s instrument and his ability to tinker with it like a loving mechanic. Voicing counts for little in Abbasi’s work, which uses electronics to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a dense, dark sound picture and seems less an evocation of intertwined distance after what we’ve already heard. Luc Ferrari’s Musique socialiste? gives its own question-concept space to breathe, pitting the steady electronic throbbing of the state against the paranoia of the individual harpsichordist – soothing or suffocating, depending on your politics. There’s a lot here to get your teeth into but, in truth, not much to be afraid of.
Andrew Mellor, Gramophone
That question mark in the title certainly implies a lot. On the one level, it’s referring to a piece on the disc, but on another, it’s Esfahani the pugilist, fighting for the harpsichord’s place in contemporary music-making; he says in the notes that one inspiration for making this recording was the audience members who “over the years, booed, cat-called, and/or walked out of halls worldwide in anger and confusion (in other words, fear)” during performances of these works. He concludes, “be assured, my friends, that much more of this is on its way”. That question mark, then, is Esfahani sending a message to the members of his audience who don’t want to engage with “difficult” music, and daring them to ask – is this music? Well, the answer is pretty easy. This is a brilliant, refreshing, and powerful disc that re-positions the harpsichord as a vital part of modern music-making.
The disc opens with Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming, part of both Takemitsu’s “Waterscape” series and “dream and number” works. Beginning with consonant single notes, they’re soon contrasted by the sprinkling of dissonant raindrops before being overtaken by chordal material.
Henry Cowell’s music deserves to be performed more often, though a “morals” charge and prison stay in the 1930s probably didn’t help the conservative public of the time accept his music. His Set of four refracts ancient forms through his own sensibilities – it’s not often you hear tone clusters on harpsichords. Esfahani’s performance here is a striking one, highlighting and reinforcing the form of this unusual collection.
Later works on the disc pit Esfahani against pre-recorded electro-acoustic layers. Anahita Abbasi’s Intertwined distances, written for Esfahani, uses harpsichord sounds alone, while Luc Ferrari’s Programme commun expands to pulses and drones. Saariaho’s Jardin secret II is an especial highlight. Esfahani’s exploration of these works is a must-buy for those interested in contemporary music. Bold and thrilling.
Paul Ballam-Cross, Limelight Magazine
dazzling performances… an artist to be reckoned with, and this compelling new disc of contemporary music… finds him on suitably fiery form…. Exploratory, imaginative and stylishly performed…
Kate Wakeling BBC Music Magazine****
This album of modern pieces for harpsichord will completely upend your idea of the instrument.
Ivan Hewett The Telegraph****
Mahan Esfahani—he’s just such an amazing force and a polemicist for the harpsichord … because although he’s brilliant at Bach he refuses to let the harpsichord remain in an ‘Early Music’ box, and he’s a great commissioner and performer of new music … really good recorded sound as well … it’s brilliantly done.
BBC Record Review
Musique?, devoted to works composed between 1960 and 2018, [makes] a statement: Esfahani—an Iranian-born, American-raised evangelist for an archaic keyboard closely linked with centuries-old European music—elevates composers who deviate from convention. In acoustic works by Toru Takemitsu, Henry Cowell, and Gavin Bryars, he demonstrates the deft touch and technical bravura familiar from his celebrated Baroque interpretations. But, in electroacoustic pieces by Kaija Saariaho, Anahita Abbasi, and Luc Ferrari, Esfahani’s exuberant lines, rapier-sharp thrusts, and bombastic explosions abandon courtly decorum, revealing an instrument strange and new.
Steve Smith, The New Yorker
The adventurous harpsichord champion Mahan Esfahani has, for the first time, devoted an entire album to music of our time. To further stretch the boundaries of the known, three of the six compositions also contain an electronic component, often based on the harpsichord sound itself. ... Esfahani's compatriot, Iranian Anahita Abbasi, shows herself a composer with guts in the two-year-old Intertwined Distances. Alienating buzzing sounds and furious keyboard fists interspersed with gossamer string playing create a theatrical listening experience.
Frits van der Waa, de Volkskrant****
JS Bach – Brandenburg Concertos
Hong Kong City Hall (January 2020)
The second half of the programme began with the much loved fifth concerto, which contains a mammoth cadenza for harpsichord that elevates the instrument from accompanist to featured soloist. Mahan Esfahani, who played in all six concerti, made liberal use of rubato in his romantic, and technically flawless, interpretation of this extended passage.
Dirk Newton, South China Morning Post
The Toccatas, Hyperion (CDA68244)
Under Mahan Esfahani’s fleet fingers and even fleeter imagination, they positively fly – invigorating vehicles for his custom-built harpsichord complete with thunderous 16-foot stop whose bottom Ds in BWV 913 sound like heralds of the apocalypse… Esfahani continually finds more in the music than the page might suggest…Fugues that in other performances outstay their welcome simply don’t. Esfahani perfectly understands the toccatas’ architecture, yet celebrates their quirkiness and, interrogating every note, is generous with expressive pauses.
Paul Riley, BBC Music Magazine, Instrumental choice: performance *****, recording *****
Esfahani’s playing feels free and spontaneous without losing the underlying pulse of the music. The toccatas display their brilliance proudly. One can imagine the young Bach showing off his prowess just like this.
Richard Fairman, The Financial Times****
The album that has recently given me the most joy has been Mahan Esfahani’s recording of Bach’s early keyboard Toccatas (Hyperion). You tend to think of harpsichords as timid creatures, the sound always kept on a leash. Not here: Esfahani’s new modern instrument, inspired by 18th century models, roars with a force and depth perfectly keyed to the power of his interpretations. Then there’s the music itself…a wonderful indulgence!
Geoff Brown, BBC Music Magazine
Some of the most extroverted Bach I’ve ever heard forms this week’s Recording of the Week, as Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani brings his customary panache to the seven toccatas for keyboard, BWV910-916. The intellectual side of Bach’s finely-woven counterpoint sometimes draws contemplative, reticent accounts from performers, but from the very first flourish of BWV910, it’s clear that Esfahani is not remotely interested in such an inward-looking approach. Indeed, the term “flamboyant” springs unbidden to mind at numerous points on this album.
Not only is Esfahani quite happy to apply generous quantities of rubato in order to emphasise the rhetorical gestures of the music, but he’s also playing on an instrument that affords him a much wider range of expressive colour than one might normally expect of the harpsichord. … There are points throughout the album when Esfahani manages to conjure from the harpsichord a bass roar evoking the sonorous reed stops of an organ.
That’s not to say, of course, that the music is universally weighty; far from it. The middle of BWV912 is appropriately spiky, and most of the toccatas have at least one movement with a simpler, calmer mood. Here, not surprisingly, Esfahani discards the 4’ and 16’ stops and descends back down to the realm of mere mortals with a more conventional, and far lighter, sound. That being said, his decision to close one such passage, partway through BWV913, with an unexpected clanging pedal D on the 16’ stop is surely a cheeky reminder that the richer and more powerful sounds are always just one tiny gesture away from returning in full force, and that the listener shouldn’t get used to anything “normal” or “ordinary”. This toccata has perhaps the most forceful ending of all seven – a fortissimo cadential figure that brooks no argument and, with the 16’ heavy artillery once again deployed, brings the piece to a thunderous close worthy of an organ voluntary.
His rubato is again the tell-tale clue giving away just how much he is enjoying the music (a quality that isn’t necessarily a given in recordings), but listening to the peerless counterpoint it’s impossible to fault him for such self-indulgence; quite the reverse, indeed, as the music seems the better and the more alive for it.
It should come as no surprise that Esfahani is undaunted by such challenges, but what really sets this album apart is not his fingerwork but the way he exploits the capabilities of his instrument to also bring out the drama in these showy works. Perhaps best washed down with a ruminative Dowland pavan or two to lower one’s pulse afterwards, his account of the seven toccatas is an exhilarating ride in the harpsichord equivalent of a souped-up sports car, driven by surely the finest and most assured driver alive today. I have no hesitation in predicting that this recording will scoop award after award.
David Smith, Presto Classical
[Mahan Esfahani’s] new disc of Bach’s Toccatas (Hyperion) conveys the spirit and expressive freedom of these seven early works, for which no single autograph source survives. Some serious detective work is required to address issues of ornamentation and phrasing, colour and clarity, which Bach would have expected to vary according to a performer’s taste. Esfahani, who explains their complex history in a detailed essay, has made his own new performing edition and reveals these familiar pieces to have mysteries we may never have suspected.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer
Esfahani is, for many people, the greatest living harpsichordist, a musician of rare sensitivity and taste. This fine artists has considerable technique but he never flaunts it and all his gifts are here devoted to the service of Bach in performances of remarkably committed quality. Hyperion has given him a recording of first-class quality, and there is not a soiled note anywhere. A rare and, in its way, a thrilling and moving set of unbeatable performances.
Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion Quarterly*****
Bach’s seven keyboard Toccatas (BWV 910-916), written when he was in his twenties, may not be lofty masterpieces, but their rhetorical flourishes and playful diversity are easily enough to set Esfahani on fire. He’s helped by his powerful modern instrument, inspired by those built in Bach’s time. Then there’s the church acoustic, lively enough to give warmth and depth to something harpsichords aren’t supposed to do well — let an individual note linger. The resulting sound is bold, dynamic and stupendous.
Mostly, though, it’s Esfahani’s force and interpretive flair that make this album so compelling. Feel his muscles in the proclamations of the first Toccata, a piece just as strenuous as its key signature, F sharp minor. Share his pain in the taut phrasing of the D minor Toccata, delightfully eased in the sprightly dance of its concluding fugue. The word “toccata”, as Esfahani points out, derives from the Italian “toccare”, meaning “to touch”, and it’s the physicality of his music-making that seems so right, both for his instrument and the music of a composer clearly delighting in muscle-flexing of his own.
Geoff Brown, The Times
Mahan Esfahani is as thoughtful and provocative a writer as he is a musician. I’ve spent almost as much time reading and re-reading his booklet essays as I have listening to his performances. The reality is they’re two sides of the same coin, informing each other in a way literary analyses and texts rarely do. Maybe that’s because Esfahani is also a (re)creative artist, a co-creator. When, in the essay accompanying these remarkable performances, he writes of “scores so clearly in need of the (respectful) intervention – or, rather, participation – of a performer,” this is what he’s talking about…
The use of generous fermatas, of an extremely flexible pulse, of phrasing, of embellishment is utterly consistent with a profound sympathy with Bach’s temperamental love of freedom, of independence. Then I hear the fugues. And I hear exactly the same thing. This time, however, there’s the sense Esfahani, as much as Bach, is intentionally labouring under self-imposed constraints in order to stimulate a heightened imaginative intensity. It’s really something.
Will Yeoman, Limelight
Bach's Toccatas carry a measure of mystery, in that definitive scores for this music are impossible to come by, leaving performers ample latitude in ornamentation and other details. Harpsichordist Esfahani applies meticulous scholarship to this process yet has produced a vivid recording built on animated performances appropriate to the toccata form.
Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
Duo recital with Michala Petri
Bergen International Festival (June 2019)
Esfahani, meanwhile, proved a congenial and resourceful accompanist. … His solo flourish came in a performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto: big-boned, full-flavoured, rhythmically free (even slightly cheeky). Yes, he banishes daintiness from his keyboards – but not, thank goodness, subtlety or refinement.
Boyd Tonkin, The Arts Desk
JS Bach Goldberg Variations
Bergen International Festival (May 2019)
He plays through the work with almost improvisatory freedom, in addition to formidable technique. The fast, hair-raising virtuoso variations that require crossing hands sound, in his interpretation, with outstanding clarity.
Pianists who deal with such passages on a regular grand piano often make them sound dull and awkward. When Esfahani plays them on the two manuals of the harpsichord, they sound like they were originally supposed to be: two independent lines, two melodies that carelessly weave in and out of each other.
The technique, the dexterity, and the clear alignment are all very impressive, but the most amazing thing about Esfahani's interpretation of the Goldberg variations is actually how he works with the harpsichord's own sound. He uses the sound of the instrument itself to characterize and distinguish the individual variations from one another. If you thought you knew how a harpsichord sounds, think again. For Esfahani, all of the instrument's built-in mechanisms exploit the sound. He creates a palette of infinite colors. He uses octave ducts, lute registers and all sorts of other dampers to make his instrument blade like an organ, or chime like a harp. … We have witnessed a musical miracle.
George Lewis, Anahita Abbasi, Miroslav Srnka, Luc Ferrari
BBC Scottish Tectonics Festival (May 2019)
The real kick-ass moments came … in Mahan Esfahani’s anarchic solo harpsichord programme, where the delicate instrument of Bach and Couperin – especially in George Lewis’ Timelike Weave – became a liberated voice of rebellion.
Ken Walton, The Scotsman
JC Bach Concerto in E flat, Op 7 No 5 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (April 2019)
A dozen RLPO string players provided a spry, lyrical accompaniment to Esfahani’s keyboard fireworks, decorated with his own cadenzas and the addition of two horns, which underlined the buoyant, hunting mood of the outer movements, graceful yet full of harmonic surprise. This composer’s output is still being discovered and assessed: Esfahani included the horns in the light of a neglected Berlin manuscript, his attention drawn by the British JC Bach expert Stephen Roe. We were certainly the first, for a couple of centuries, to hear it that way.
Esfahani, born in Tehran, raised in the US, long resident in London but now based in Prague, has made it his mission to bring the harpsichord to life, not only as a baroque instrument but as part of today’s musical landscape. A natural performer (and a broadcaster too), he’s a boisterous advocate. His programmes typically unite old with new or recent. He was also soloist in Poulenc’s Concert champêtre, an enjoyable but frankly bonkers example of 1920s French neoclassicism, as if a Fragonard shepherdess had collided with a bunch of flappers on the Rive Gauche.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer
D’Anglebert, Srnka, JS Bach, Gibbons and Reich
Marianischer Saal Lucerne (February 2019)
You don’t have to go far to understand why the sensational recital of harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani at the Marian Hall was full bar a few seats. The Iranian-American brought his wonderful sounding instrument to perform early to late baroque works, and benefited from the original sound of the harpsichord. However, he also opened up music of the future by playing Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” and a work by the Czech Miroslav Srnka which involved electronics. This gave the live performance a modern image. Esfahani explained the function of the E-Bows, the vibrations of the strings as ethereal tones over speakers which reverberated around the room. Before the athletic and virtuosic last encore by Domenico Scarlatti, he removed his jacket and loosened his shirt and tie like you would before a fight. We heard the old music in a completely new light. At the beginning of the Jean-Henry d’Anglebert suit, he is present from the first note and the profound bass sound spreads like one heavy, gold, sensual perfume accompanied by weightless trills and ornaments in the treble register. With flexible and playful rubato and metre, and boldly splayed and clouded harmonic twists, this music succeeds in the modern day.
The rock bass and baroque ancestor, Bach’s Italian Concerto, played on the Italian harpsichord model, helped him to find contrasting sounds. Where abrupt and surprising brakes were found in the first accents, he tore through with unrestrained momentum in the final movement. Different again was the Orlando Gibbons, composed around 1600: archaic-simple meditative dance patterns were combined with a fast drive that sounded like endlessly fluttering ribbons pulled over the pounding bass. For those well acquainted with music between baroque and modern genres, this was exciting new music, especially in Gibbon’s repetitive and rocking bass line amidst a program which focuses on contemporary works.
In Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, we were reminded of the d’Anglebert effects as the repetitive and intermeshed live patterns were dazzlingly tight and rhythmically precise. Srnka’s Triggering began with attacks on the keyboard, as if the iron bars inside the instrument were shaking. The other sections, however, exhausted themselves within the music samples and were more restrained tonally. The e-bows with which Esfahani plays individual strings to create the murmuring effect of flutes creates mysterious but quiet effects. This experimental programme showed the new possibilities that the harpsichord could open up. It is up to Esfahani how he lets us contribute to this journey.
Urs Mattenberger, Luzerner Zeitung
Bach Gamba Sonatas with Pieter Wispelwey
Tonicale Münich (February 2019)
With the magnificent harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, the three gamba sonatas became witty conversations between three voices that imitate each other, interlink into a web or (in the slow movements) lead pensive and intimate dialogues and trialogues – especially powerfully in the Andante in the G major sonata. Both artists played mindful of transparency and with mutual understanding – features that make complex music exciting and gripping. In the D minor toccata, Esfahani portrayed how the young Bach (during his Weimar period) … [showed] off his virtuosic skills on the keyboard and his enthusiasm for passionate expressivity. The duo thanked the audience for the big applause with a fine da capo of the Andante of the D major [sonata].
Harald Eggebrecht, Süddeutsche Zeitung
The Passinge Mesures, Music of the English virginalists, Hyperion (CDA68249)
“Listening to this Iranian-American wheeling at speed through 16th and 17th-century English delights is as exhilarating a musical experience as I know...As for virtuoso flair, even Liszt would doff the cap at Esfahani’s furious arpeggios and decorative flourishes, fingers flying at the speed of light...Such enriching repertoire too. The Passinge Mesures takes its title from a Byrd pavan and galliard — ancient dance forms bustled into dizzying, sometimes dissonant new shapes... I suspect that Esfahani would make magic even if playing a penny whistle. This is definitely one of my albums of the year.”
Geoff Brown, The Times
“These works have sometimes been handled as trifles or decorative minatures. But Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani treats them as profoundly expressive and introspective works. Here measured, there free, his readings highlight the ebb and flow of their poetry and prose; phrases are rhetorically articulated. Esfahani’s muscular technique enhances the robust rhythms of popular dances like the gilliard, jig and romanesca, and his response to Byrd’s hexachord fantasy is visceral rather than cerebral … Though the choice is anachronistic – the instrument beefing up what would have been a more intimate soundworld – Esfahani’s performances are so persuasive that it is hard to raise any strong objection.”
Kate Bolton-Porciatti, BBC Music Magazine
“This recording provides further confirmation of Mahan Esfahani’s status among the finest keyboard players of his generation. For listeners who relish challenging material and interpretations on the harpsichord, he is perhaps the most exciting exponent in the present day. Here he presents a varied and well-chosen selection from a repertory which, as he makes passionately clear in the accompanying booklet, is close, if not closest of all, to his heart and mind: music by Bull, Byrd, Giles and Richard Farnaby, Gibbons, Inglott and Tomkins. There could hardly be a better programme; different, certainly, but not better.
Esfahani’s commitment to this repertory is absolute. He plays it because of how it affects himself, but also with missionary zeal because he wants it to affect other people as profoundly. Thankfully this does not result in an evangelical harangue. There are passages of gentleness and even humour alongside those exhibiting a dazzling technique and some powerful projection.
Finally, as for Esfahani’s overall performance, he responds stylishly and elegantly to this music that evidently means so much to him, responding with panache to glittering cascades of notes when given the opportunity by the composers where they let their creativity exuberantly rip. … I found that Esfahani’s interpretations on his chosen instruments gave me fresh insights into pieces by composers with whom I am very familiar. I hope other readers will investigate this thoughtful, stimulating and quite outstanding record.”
Richard Turbet, Early Music Review
“Mr Esfahani is an all-too-rare presence in the harpsichord world. First, he is erudite and indefatigable in his study of the context surrounding the music he plays. (His far-reaching liner notes excite me as much as his performance.) Second, he has amazing technique, amply illustrated by many tracks on this recording, including the notoriously fiendish Barafostus Dream of Tomkins. And finally, he never allows the often doctrinaire world of historically-informed performance to interfere with his musical instincts and his search for a truly expressive solution to every phrase he plays. This program is an ideal introduction to the world of the English virginalists but also the kind of compilation that would thoroughly please the most seasoned aficionado. … Each performance is as close to perfection as I can imagine, so I will concentrate on just a few. The Byrd hexachord fantasia takes what is usually a very dutiful contrapuntal exercise and turns it into a small, perfect world containing a shifting procession of the most varied emotions. The pavans, while played with virtuosic panache, also respond well to the intimate, somewhat wistful expression that these works always require. And even in a kind of throwaway work like the Scottish Gigg, he balances the simple pleasures of such music with an intelligent and utterly persuasive sense of its overall shape. Here, as elsewhere, he accomplishes these miracles with the traditional gifts of any great musician, historical, mainstream, or legendary—a variety of touch, a surprising but always musical sense of phrasing and timing, and boundless technical mastery.”
Haskins, American Record Guide
Steve Reich, Michael Nyman and J.S. Bach
Japan Century Symphony Orchestra at Sumida Triphony Hall (December 2018)
The concert was exceptional in every way. Firstly, the extraordinary programme - Bach’s epic work was preceded with minimalist, repetitive music of the late 20th century! Steve Reich’s Piano Phase and Michael Nyman’s Harpsichord Concerto both required exceptional concentration.
In Piano Phase, Esfahani performed against a track he had pre-recorded himself. The aim of the piece, originally written for piano, is to enjoy the same phrases subtly shifting in and out of sync, but this performance took a new life on the harpsichord. The sharp and piquant sounds of the instrument created a highly charged atmosphere which was full of tension.
Under conductor Kentaro Kawase, and accompanied by the Japan Century Symphony Orchestra, Nyman’s Harpsichord Concert saw the solo part weaving in and out of the string fabric, moving rapidly forward almost endlessly. Esfahani’s energetic and uncompromising touch was striking and effective; he emphasized the bold harmonies and rock rhythms, and his tempo shifts can be likened to a smooth changing of gears. It was the highlight of the evening.
Finally, in the feature item of the programme, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Esfahani stunned us in the opening aria by stripping away all the ornaments from the melody, making it sound somewhat folk-like. A gentle lyricism was heard in Variation 13, and the plucking in the sweetly sounding high register suitably added colour in Variation 19. His playful manner could be heard in all thirty variations through his clear and slightly hard tone which felt contemporary. Towards the end, the faster variations were taken at even quicker tempi.
With a reasonably long concert lasting two and a half hours, it was thrilling to be taken on a roller-coaster ride throughout. Esfahani is indeed an exceptional talent.
Miyuki Shiraishi, Asahi Shimbun
The Modern Man: Rameau, Lynch, Bryars, Powell, Bach
Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore (November 2018)
“In the past decade, Esfahani has taken the musical world by storm with his creative programming, performing the music by the usual suspects such as Bach, Couperin and Rameau, as well as modern composers such as Ligeti and Reich. … Esfahani's mastery of the harpsichord, including the essential ability to portray dynamics and emotion on an instrument that inherently has no dynamic range because of its fixed plucking mechanism, is complete. … Even without using all of the gadgetry, he creates a plethora of expressions, through give and take in tempo, and cleverly judged ornamentation. … Esfahani's towering musicianship came to the fore in this performance, which would have convinced any sceptic that notwithstanding its limitation in volume and dynamics, the harpsichord can produce an exciting range of sounds that shows off Bach's genius completely.”
Mervin Beng, The Straits Times
Byrd, Berio, Bryars, Alexander, Reich, Bach, Abbasi
Musis Sacrum, Arnhem (November 2018)
In the four-hundred-year-old Lachrimae Pavan by William Byrd, Esfahani gripped the audience with free and richly decorated playing. He straightened his back in The Carman's Whistle and very subtly we saw how the rhythms of the piece were translated to his body – his hands dancing across the two manuals of the Titus Crijnen harpsichord… With electronically manipulated harpsichord sounds played on tape, an extremely exciting dialogue arose between that and the harpsichord on the stage. A bass line which sounded like animals growling emitted from the speakers, cleaved by the tinkling harpsichord tones in Abbasi's magical discourse that breathed freedom.
Biëlla Luttmer, de Volkskrant
J.S. Bach, Bryars, Lynch, Alexander
St George's Bristol (October 2018)
If you can get on board with Esfahani’s compelling ancient-meets-modern, interpreter-meets-composer vision, there were far more treats than tricks on offer. The trio of contemporary works — Graham Lynch’s Admiring Yoro Waterfall, Gavin Bryars’s After Handel’s Vesper and Haim Alexander’s Improvisation on a Persian Folksong — were played with finesse. Yet the focus was Bach: four Duets, the C minor Partita and the Overture in the French Style, all played with an attentive ear for counterpoint and colour.
Rebecca Franks, The Times
Poulenc Concert champêtre
Royal Northern Sinfonia, Birthday Gala at The Sage, Gateshead (September 2018)
After the break out came the Sinfonia’s famous bravura. The harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani was unleashed too. Together they made a delicious feast of Poulenc’s thoughtfully droll Concert champêtre, animated with the crispest of colours and attack.
Geoff Brown, The Times
Poulenc’s Concert champêtre for harpsichord and orchestra was fronted by Mahan Esfahani, who enjoyed a natural repartee with the RNS in a scintillating performance. Rapturous applause was rewarded with a delightful gem by Purcell.
Gavin Engelbrecht, The Northern Echo
Bach Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Musikfest Erzgebirge, Mauersberger-Aula (September 2018)
The much in demand harpsichord player Mahan Esfahani played Bach’s Goldberg Variations with as much defiance as there was wonderful beauty, and with as much discipline as there was freedom of thought.
Manuel Brug, Die Welt
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BBC Proms, Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Royal Albert Hall, London (August 2018)
A performance by Esfahani would be something to treasure.
Anna Picard, The Times
The Bach performances were at their best when the soloists were let free and put to the fore. Several have been mentioned already, but one who made a real mark on this event was Mahan Esfahani. His way of clarifying and making musical sense of the antics of the cadenza from Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 was a genuine highlight of this very long day.
Sebastian Scotney, theartsdesk.com
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto was for me the unquestioned highlight of the first concert and indeed of the Bach performances as a whole. Here, it seemed, the soloists, especially Esfahani, took the lead...and turned what they were doing into a performance in the living, emphatic sense. The first movement was lively and breathed, its contours and formal dynamism not only apparent but felt, experienced. Esfahani’s way with the cadenza not only impressed, but reminded us what astounding music this is. It would be foolish to imitate Furtwängler, even on the piano, but his incredible recorded 1950 performance from Salzburg remains the model here. Esfahani proved a worthy successor. The second movement was true Kammermusik: flexible, beautifully balanced, with all the give and take one might have hoped for between harpsichord, flute, and especially violin. Bach’s closing Allegro danced with far greater ease than any of those aforementioned self-conscious ‘Baroque Dance Lessons’ and, naturally, went far deeper. These were not soloists who, again to borrow from Adorno, said Bach yet meant Telemann. Its contrapuntal complexity was embraced; that complexity embraced both performers and audience in return.
Mark Berry, Seen and Heard International
Bach 6 Little Preludes, Sonata in C, Toccatas in G & C minor and English Suite No. 5
Wigmore Hall (May 2018)
Esfahani, while delivering exceptionally detailed and nuanced playing, captured [the Preludes] smooth and rounded nature. In contrast, the Sonata in C major, BWV966 that followed revealed just how versatile a player he is, and how disparate the demands the piece places on an interpreter who is well versed enough to appreciate them. At times he drove the sound to an extent that scarcely seemed possible on a harpsichord, while at others he languished in phrases to a notable degree. There were also moments when the pace seemed just a fraction slower than might have initially seemed appropriate for the section, but this was also planned to perfection because it introduced a real sense of tension.
Sam Smith, musicOMH.com
J.S. Bach Recital, Al Bustan International Music Festival
Beyt Amir, Beirut, Lebanon (March 2018)
Returning for a roaring curtain call, Esfahani chose to play a short, melodic piece by English baroque composer Henry Purcell, which he said had been stuck in his head all day. It proved ear worms can be a good thing sometimes.
Maghie Ghali, The Daily Star (Lebanon)
J.S. Bach English Suites Nos. 3 & 4, Sonata in A minor and Toccata in D Major
Wigmore Hall, London (February 2018)
To reach the mother lode of Bach's keyboard music, you have to listen to it on harpsichord and today no performer embodies that mother lode more than Mahan Esfahani. What distinguishes Esfahani's playing is the range of colours that he is able to extract from his instrument. There is light and shade, there is tension and free flow, there is focused directness or meandering exploration. And given that he is playing an instrument whose notes have no intrinsic sustain, Esfahani spins an extraordinary cantabile.
David Karlin, bachtrack.com
Górecki Harpsichord Concerto, Münchener Kammerorchester
Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich (January 2018)
Soloist Mahan Esfahani played the immutably fast-paced yet strangely static solo voice with stunning fluency.
Rita Argauer, Süddeutsche Zeitung
Bach Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Dialoge Festival, Mozarteum, Salzburg (December 2017)
The recital was concluded by a very supple interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988, articulated with a breath so personal that it felt like they were being rediscovered.
Byrd, Bach, Cowell, Reich, Saariaho
Menil Collection, Da Camera, Houston (December 2017)
Banishing the harpsichord’s stereotype as the piano’s jingly, stiff ancestor, Esfahani brought vigor, color, expression and atmosphere to his performances.
Steven Brown, Texas Classical Review
Bach, Rameau, Cowell, Saariaho
Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House (April 2017)
Esfahani's playing is engagingly imaginative and captures the freshness of instrumental texture. His artistry, musicianship and ability to communicate make him an ideal champion for the harpsichord's heritage and potential…American composer Henry Cowell's neoclassical suite, Set of Four, rediscovered Baroque form and texture with a strikingly original voice, and Esfahani brought out its harmonic density and expressiveness with deeply empathetic understanding…Bach's Concerto in the Italian Style, BWV 971 explored rich diversity of sounds in the slow movement and the finale romped with buoyant exhilarating momentum.
Peter McCallum, The Sydney Morning Herald
This is one of those heavenly melodic solos that abound in Bach’s works, more often for voice, violin or oboe, and in this instance over a repetitive six-note bass figure. Esfahani gave the two repeated final notes such a variety of timings – here slightly rushed, there lingering and delayed – that the feel behind the lovely melody in the right hand was one of wistful hesitancy. It set up the Presto finale beautifully, this being taken at breathless speed with a suspicion of Baroque barrelhouse in the left hand.
Steve Moffatt, Limelight Magazine
Tomkins, Cowell, Kalabis, Reich
92nd Street Y, New York (March 2017)
Yet even the most disparaging listener could only have admired Mr. Esfahani’s discipline and close concentration as he moved out of phase with the taped performance in minuscule increments and then, ever so slowly, drifted back in. The ovation was intense and seemingly universal.
James R. Oestreich, The New York Times
Bach Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Music at Paxton, Paxton House (July 2017)
Esfahani’s Goldbergs were a deeply human experience, brimming with humour and wit, cool objectivity, deep tragedy and startling joy. He managed a near miraculous balance in injecting each piece with its own vivid character, yet shaping their succession into a meaningful journey.
David Kettle, The Scotsman
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, Edinburgh (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
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