Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichord

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

Gramophone

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

The Guardian

"Nothing could have prepared me for the brilliance and artistry of Mahan Esfahani, who, despite his young age, played with the musicality and virtuosity of a master ... not a single phrase lacked purpose or direction."

Keyboard Magazine

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

The Times

"The Harpsichord comes out of hiding ... magnificent."

The Daily Telegraph

"Esfahani gave a flawless performance – highly virtuosic improvisations and joyously delivered with some breakneck speeds."

Kölner Stadtanzeiger

"It would be hard not to be impressed by Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani ... In a beautifully chosen programme Esfahani’s touch was always insightful and, above all, visceral."

The Guardian

"Exhaustingly brilliant."

The New York Times

Download full biography

Mahan Esfahani has made it his life's mission to rehabilitate the harpsichord in the mainstream of concert instruments, and to that end his creative programming and work in commissioning new works have drawn the attention of critics and audiences across Europe, Asia, and North America. He was the first and only harpsichordist to be a BBC New Generation Artist (2008-2010), a Borletti-Buitoni prize winner (2009), and a nominee for Gramophone's Artist of the Year (2014, 2015, and 2017). In 2022, he became the youngest recipient of the Wigmore Medal, in recognition of his significant contribution and longstanding relationship with the Hall.

His work for the harpsichord has resulted in recitals in most of the major series and concert halls, amongst them London's Wigmore Hall and Barbican Centre, Oji Hall in Tokyo, the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing, Shanghai Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall in NYC, Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Recital Centre, Los Angeles's Walt Disney COncert Hall, Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, Berlin Konzerthaus, Zurich Tonhalle, Wiener Konzerthaus, San Francisco Performances, the 92nd St Y, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, Cologne Philharmonie, Edinburgh International Festival, Aspen Music Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, Madrid's Fundacio Juan March, Bergen Festival, Festival Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Al Bustan Festival in Beirut, Jerusalem Arts Festival, and the Leipzig Bach Festival, and concerto appearances with the Chicago Symphony, Ensemble Modern, BBC Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, Auckland Philharmonia, Czech Radio Symphony, Orquesta de Navarra, Malta Philharmonic, Orchestra La Scintilla, Aarhus Symphony, Montreal’s Les Violons du Roy, Hamburg Symphony, Munich Chamber Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with whom he was an artistic partner for 2016-2018.

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

Scarlatti solo recital

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, October 2022

Scarlatti's sonatas surprise us anew - the Iranian harpsichordist found the humanity and links between works in an immaculate recital. Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas crop up regularly enough in recitals, most often in a group of four or five beginning a programme, or acting as a palate-cleanser between more substantial works. Concerts devoted exclusively to them are rare, but in doing precisely that harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani was on a mission to encourage his audience to see Scarlatti and his music on their own terms...

Of the more than 550 sonatas Scarlatti wrote, Esfahani says, more than 90% are still largely unknown, and only 30 were published in the composer’s lifetime (as “Exercises”, in 1739). Esfahani included six of those in the 19 (with two more added as an encore) that he selected for his recital, presenting them all in a single span without an interval. He played sonatas that Scarlatti clearly intended as linked pairs with scarcely any break between them, like the two in F major, Kk296 and Kk297, with which he opened, the first almost Romantically effusive, the second extrovert and unpredictable, and together making the maximum contrast with the profoundly introspective F minor Kk466 sonata that followed them, whose expression “straddles the wide expanse of life between lullaby and funeral dirge”, according to Esfahani...

The unidentified harpsichord that he was playing seemed to have been chosen for its intimately expressive qualities, allowing him to trace melodic lines in silvery filigree, and to ensure that the denser harmonies also remained lucid. But it was clear, too, that he had planned his programme so that it built steadily, with the grandest, flashiest pieces reserved for the final quarter of his 80-minute sequence, whether that was the exuberance of the C minor sonata Kk116, the brilliance of the A major Kk24, or the quasi-operatic ornamentation and key shifts of the E minor Kk263. But the published programme ended on a quieter note, with the simple aria of Kk32 in D minor, which Esfahani played with just as much care and attention to detail as he had the most imposing and demanding pieces before it – a fascinatingly conceived recital, immaculately presented.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian ****

Poul Ruders: Harpsichord concerto with the RSNO

Glasgow, October 2022 (UK premiere)

A sharp crisp performance [of] of Poul Ruders’ Concerto for Harpsichord, a work written in 2020 for the fearless Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. The joy of Ruders’ writing is that it seeks to release the instrument from its Baroque straitjacket, give it a contemporary voice, and overcome its volume limitations through subtle amplification... Esfahani’s performance captured the infectious volatility of the music, from its pulverising wildness to chiming sensitivity, its pervading obsession with repeated notes to copious liberating flights of free-flowing virtuosity. Rich and sensitive colourings from the RSNO enhanced its charming freshness.

Ken Walton, The Scotsman ****

Music meets machine...we were treated to one of the most original and mesmerising concertos I have ever heard on this stage. This was the UK premiere of Poul Ruders' Concerto for Harpsichord, co-commissioned by the RSNO and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, a piece that cheerfully upends everything we thought we knew about an instrument firmly anchored in the 18th century. We are accustomed to hearing the harpsichord against a small baroque orchestra, but not against a large symphony orchestra with a lush score, and not making any particular effort to be quiet either. For this reason, Ruders specifies amplification of his solo instrument, acknowledging in his programme note that "period-instrument fundamentalists will be horrified - the mere thought is abominable". In the event, the amplification was unobtrusive, and it certainly did not detract from the extraordinary performance by harpsichord superstar Mahan Esfahani, for whom this concerto was written. The solo part is driven forward by an almost brutal rhythmic momentum, dense chord clusters merging into an almost unearthly sound in which the musical notes are subsumed into an expression of pure percussive energy. The vision that came to mind was that of a machine grinding music much like stones being crushed in a gravel quarry. If that sounds like an unflattering comparison, it does not take into account the compelling presence of Esfahani at the keyboard, often rising from his seat in sheer exuberance, hands chasing each other up and down the keyboard. For the most part, the orchestra inhabits a different universe, providing a calm, near-romantic backdrop to Esfahani's manic energy, though the slower central movement allowed soloist and orchestra to find common ground in a cinematic interlude...It's difficult to do justice to a concerto that defies convention as thoroughly as this one, but suffice to say that it was met with a roar of approval at the end.

Esfahani treated us to an encore, an exquisitely poised Gavotte and Variations by Rameau, which reminded us of the harpsichord's principal musical constituency. That these two contrasting visions could co-exist so easily in one concert shows that adventurous programming can work when the commitment is as evident as it was on Friday night.

Christopher Lambton, Arts Desk ****

Miroslav Srnka: Harpsichord concerto with the Gürzenich Orchester Köln

September 2022, Kölner Philharmonie (World Premiere)

For years, soloist Mahan Esfahani has paved the way to bring the harpsichord into the modern age, sometimes against heavy resistance... Srnka's work displays all the joy of experimentation and virtuosity

Johannes Zink, Kölnischer Rundschau

Esfahani played the new harpsichord concerto by Czech composer Miroslav Srnka with great virtuosity...The orchestra and harpsichord are on the best of terms as partners. The harpsichord manages the gurgling and bubbling noises of the ensemble, evoking associations of an overflowing water tank... after enthusiastic applause, for which Esfahani thanked the audience with an improvised passacaglia over a ground bass to honour the recently deceased Queen.

Markus Schwering, Kölner Stadtanzeiger

Clavier-Übung II, Hyperion (CDA68336)

Released September 2022

In this recording, devoted to the two key works of Bach’s Clavierübung II – the Italian Concerto and the Overture in the French Style – Esfahani makes that independence even more explicit, greatly expanding the dynamic and expressive capacity of the harpsichord.

His particular instrument was made in 2018 in the Prague workshop of Jukka Ollikka, a double-manual showpiece with 16ft and 4ft registers for extra colour, as well as a carbon-fibre composite soundboard. It produces organ-like sonorities, especially in its lowest reaches, and Esfahani exploits its full range, including some curious and even eccentric registration choices. For those, turn first to his reading of the four duets from the Clavierübung III, more often thought of as organ works.

The expanded dynamic range of the instrument is particularly welcome in the solo-ensemble contrasts of the Italian Concerto, and is particularly effective in the illusion of a solo wind instrument from the second movement. The expanded colouristic possibilities are best heard in the capacious collection of dances from the Overture, which exploit a range of effective registration choices.

But Esfahani isn’t just showing off an instrument. His ornamentation and articulation are inventive and engaging, and will send alert listeners back to the score as the ear tries to tease out exactly what he’s doing. This is edgy, hyper-attentive playing, with rhythmic figures etched with a sharp, swift and precise stylus...

...Be sure to save special attention for the Capriccio in B flat ‘on the departure of his beloved brother’, an early work and sometimes dismissed as naive and not Bach at his mature best. Esfahani takes it seriously, finding genuine heartbreak in the slow, deliberate resolution of a simple ornament in the first movement, and powerful conflict and even terror in second and third movements (with effective realisation of the figured bass). But the concluding fugue is the pièce de résistance, turning this supposed leave-taking into a wild declaration of independence such that the recording itself becomes not just a collection of works by Bach but a performer’s manifesto.

Philip Kennicot, Gramophone Magazine

JS Bach may the great fons et origo of Western art music, but quite a few people are simply allergic to his music. If the sufferer also has an allergy to the sound of the harpsichord – again, not uncommon – then this new album of two hefty masterworks, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture, plus the four rarely heard Duets and two very early pieces might seem the most exquisite torture.

But if they try it, I’d be willing to bet it would bring them joy, as the performer is Mahan Esfahani, the Iranian-born, American-raised and now Czech-domiciled harpsichordist. Esfahani won a string of awards in his youth, including a BBC New Generation artist and Borletti-Buitoni Award. He is as passionate about contemporary harpsichord music as he is about the great pre-classical composers from Frescobaldi to CPE Bach, the familiar territory for harpsichordists from which only a few adventurous players stray.

Esfahani’s performances of Bach are dramatic and highly coloured in a way which often subverts the ideology of “period performance”, which in recent decades has been the guiding light of most harpsichordists. That ideology says: study the sources, play on exact replicas of old instruments, and above all strive to catch older styles of playing, in an effort to give listeners “what the composer wanted”. Esfahani is far too smart to be taken in by this idea, which is impossible in practice as well as being dubious in principle. He never forgets he is playing for 21st-century audiences, not a bunch of 18th-century aristocrats in an ancien régime palace. At the same time he is fascinated by old styles and old sources, and really wants to be true to the composer – in his own way.

The result is something poised tantalisingly between “then” and “now”. Many of the pieces are in dance form, but Esfahani doesn’t piously recreate the rhythm of the dance; instead he pulls the rhythms around in a way that reminds you of a great pianist moulding a Chopin waltz. Those knitting-machine fast movements are intelligently marked out by pauses, so you become aware of the grand harmonic changes beneath the incessant patter of notes. The music jumps into vivid relief, an effect magnified hugely by the prismatic variety of rich, jangling colours Esfahani conjures from his custom-made harpsichord. In the performance of Bach’s very early “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother” Esfahani adds laugh-out-loud wit and imaginative recreation to the mix. In all these performances are a marvel. Never has Bach seemed less dry and more full of fantasy.

Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph ***** - The best classical CDs of August and September 2022

Mahan Esfahani couldn’t make a routine recital of Bach’s keyboard music if you paid him to … what a great way to end a Bach harpsichord recital … I love that final ‘ping’ as he lifts his hands from the keys. Bach’s Italian Concerto begins the album, leaping into life with irresistible immediacy, bristling with trills and decorations like little fireworks bursting over the left hand’s propulsive leaps, and it’s easy to share the sense of satisfaction at the range of sounds Esfahani’s harpsichord produces under his fingers, recorded in a well-handled church acoustic: there’s a lovely halo around everything with no loss of detail, and the bass of the instrument fully captured. Mahan’s notes are as engaging and communicative as his playing

BBC Record Review

Since for Esfahani any performance starts from a position where everything is freshly, indeed forensically reconsidered, Clavier-Übung II offers particularly rich pickings. Bach sets out not only to demonstrate how thoroughly he understands the flagship styles of Italy and France, but also how he can bend them to his own purposes. The interpretive possibilities are catnip to the harpsichordist who proves himself stylishly bilingual … the concluding Presto [of the Italian Concerto] goes off like a rocket trailing scarcely-containable energy—the end thundering like Wanda Landowska on steroids … altogether, a challenge to complacency that can’t be ignored.

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

Leipzig Bachfest solo recital

Leipzig, June 2022

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

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

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

Wolfram Quellmalz, Neue Musikalische Blaetter

Poul Ruders: Harpsichord concerto

OUR Recordings (9.70896) / released May 2022

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

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

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

Scintillating contribution...Mahan Esfahani revels in the incisive moto perpetuo.

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

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

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

Philip R Buttall, MusicWeb International

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

Pizzicato *****

Bent Sørensen harpsichord concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Birmingham, April 2022 (UK premiere)

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

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

Richard Bratby, The Arts Desk ****

Chamber Music with the New World Symphony

New World Center, Miami Beach (December 2021)

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

Lawrence Budmen, South Florida Classical Review

Los Angeles Philharmonic solo recital

Walt Disney Concert Hall (December 2021)

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

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

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

Cambridge Music Festival solo recital

Downing College (October 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Gilroy, Cambridge Independent

Mahan Esfahani - sample programmes

Concerto repertoire list

Mahan Esfahani Concerto Repertoire

Commission repertoire list

Mahan Esfahani commission repertoire list

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