The Modern Man: Mahan Esfahani
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Victoria Concert Hall
Wednesday (Nov 28)
Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has a unique position as a leading soloist on an instrument that is hardly heard in solo recitals, and whose repertoire has hardly grown in the past two centuries. And yet, 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.
Singapore audiences rarely hear the harpsichord in concert and since its arrival in Singapore, this reviewer cannot recall hearing the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s double-manual French harpsichord played in a solo recital, although it has been put to good service in the basso continuo parts of many a baroque concert.
Jean-Philippe Rameau was a leading composer of his time, who created many works for the harpsichord. Esfahani began with four colourful movements from his Suite In D, RCT 3 which served as a whirlwind introduction to the range of the harpsichord – the plaintive opening roundeau Tender Sighs, followed by the aptly titled Whirlwinds, a reflective Conversation With The Muses and the flashy rondeau Cyclops.
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. The two manuals (sets of keyboards) and levers on the instrument allow the player to select different sets of strings and to damp the strings, producing a lute-like timbre. Even without using all of the gadgetry, he creates a plethora of expressions, through give and take in tempo, and cleverly judged ornamentation.
A major element of Esfahani’s meteoric rise to fame has been his pioneering work of incorporating modern harpsichord repertoire in his concert. This evening he included Graham Lynch’s Admiring Yoro Waterfall, which gets its title from the woodblock print of the same name by Japanese artist Hokusai, Gavin Bryars’ After Handel’s Vesper and Mel Powell’s Recitative And Toccata Percossa.
Even his most useful introduction and playing that did full justice to these three intriguing works were not enough to fully sway the audience this evening. Some were perhaps unconvinced by the small sound of the harpsichord, which requires more accommodative listening than many are used to in the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life, and others are not yet accustomed to modern harmonies on a harpsichord.
The handful who left the hall after the three modern works will never know what they missed. The evening was just taking off, with a superlative performance of J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2, BWV 826.
The second of the Bach’s set of six keyboard partitas has some of the composer’s more dramatic and showy writing, beginning with a substantial Sinfonia with three sections. 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.
Following Bach’s Fantasia, BWV 906, Esfahani presented a short discourse on Bach’s solo keyboard works, which added immensely to the enjoyment of the final programmed work, the Partita No. 3, BWV 827. He described this partita as more questioning, something his contemplative, reflective playing of the Allemande and Sarabande portrayed perfectly.
A relatively short second half left the audience hungry for more, and Esfahani obliged with a short encore piece by Purcell in which he magically combined a lute-like damped register with an airy un-damped melody. Rameau’s showpiece Gavotte and Variations ended this most unique and enjoyable concert.
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