Review: Mahan Esfahani – Harpsichord, Snape Maltings, August 22

It is all too easy to regard the harpsichord as a niche instrument, an area of largely academic and specialist interest. Of course, this is far from the truth and, before the piano had fully developed, the harpsichord was the main keyboard instrument and the greatest composers of the day wrote for it, including JS Bach.

Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ Books 1 & 2, together known as ‘The 48’, comprises a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key. In general, the preludes are shorter, with a sense of improvisation, while the fugues tend to be more substantial, often exploring contrapuntal techniques in considerable depth. In this recital we heard Book 1, played by the Tehran born Mahan Esfahani who has made a considerable impression in recent years, including the first ever harpsichord recital in the history of the Proms in 2011.

Esfahani’s view is that Book 1 of the ‘48’ should be viewed as one complete piece and he performed to that end. The setting was appropriate, darkened hall, single lamp and the arpeggios of the opening C major prelude – familiar and accessible to anyone who has made some progress with the piano – rippled easily through the hall. Yet there was an instant note of authority, nothing was forced or declaimed but attention demanded.

Bach’s melodic and technical invention is unflagging and makes considerable demands on the performer. Esfahani was a superb interpreter, making light of the fast moving passages and bringing outstanding clarity to the various parts in the more intricate fugal passages. There was momentum and progression but he carefully avoided any sense of remorseless onward drive that can mar performances of Bach’s keyboard music. Having moved chromatically upwards from C to B minor he ended his recital by completing the circle and playing the C major prelude again – to exquisite effect. However, his signal achievement was to make the whole evening so much more than 24 preludes and fugues, indeed it encapsulated his belief that ‘Bach is so much more than the music – it is a way of life’. In an entertaining and insightful talk after the performance Esfahani came across as an engaging and articulate personality; harpsichord playing and the music of Bach have acquired a powerful advocate.

Gareth Jones

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