Harpsichordist Esfahani breaks on through to the other side
Mahan Esfahani is a unique musician, but it’s not because he plays the harpsichord. It is the singular way he approaches the keyboard repertory, which has few parallels or peers. That was manifest Tuesday night at 92Y in a recital that was dense with fascinations and surprises.
The harpsichord is an archaic instrument, and in contemporary music-making, harpsichordist are dedicated to preserving early music. Esfahani has an entirely different view of the past. He did play early music—two pieces from the Elizabethan era and Bach’s Toccata in C minor, BWV 911—but that was a byproduct of simply playing the harpsichord. He plays what he likes, and Tuesday’s concert in the Soundscapes series also meant 20th-century music from Henry Cowell, Viktor Kalabis, and Steve Reich.
Concert programs that mix the old and the new usually come with an argument, often joined to a theme—the music as proof of concept. Esfahani doesn’t do that either—it’s worth repeating that he just plays, because by doing that he obliterates distinctions, and thus the need to argue for connections, between past and present.
In a revealing statement in the program, he wrote that this was birthed by necessity. He was determined to make a living as a harpsichordist, and “mainstream halls and series simply pay better than the early music ones… I basically had to take an interest in contemporary music in order to prove the relevance of my instrument to a ‘living tradition.’ … Then there was the matter of being asked by programmers to play mixed programs in order to attract a diverse crowd.”
Esfahani has a fluid technique and a light touch that limits the percussive harshness of the instrument. He opened with a short medley of Thomas Tompkins’ Pavan in A, and Woody-Cock by Giles Farnaby, and everything was smooth musicality. The Pavan was rhythmically expressive, yet Esfahani always maintained a steady dance pulse in either his right or left hand, while playing with notable freedom in the other.
One is used to hearing music, like that of Bach, that was originally written for harpsichord, transferred to the modern piano. Hearing modern piano music played on the harpsichord, is altogether new. Cowell’s Set of Four took on both a richer sound and a sharp feeling of brittle emotionality. The third Chorale movement is still best heard on the piano, as Cowell made the piece with important gestures meant to produce a shimmering, sustained sound. But the relatively thin sound of the harpsichord added a biting, piquant quality.
Kalabis’ Three Aquarelles is an original, modern work for harpsichord. The composer is little known here, but he was the husband of Esfahani’s teacher, the great harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková.
Esfahani described the music as escapism, a relief from communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Under his playing, the music sounded dreamlike, grounded in counterpoint but episodic and slightly nervous, as if striving to keep one step ahead of an unbearable reality.
The Bach Toccata was remarkable. Esfahani introduced it as “completely inauthentic Bach, but Bach which is authentic to me.” He played the expressive opening statements with a startling degree of freedom, bordering on improvisation. Balanced with his crisp execution of the fugue, the performance showed clear, serious thinking about the music.
The way Esfahani played Reich’s Piano Phase made it sound like the harpsichord was the instrument Reich was thinking of all along. Coming shortly after his early loop pieces, the sustain of the piano produces an echo effect, and there are passages where the music morphs into an undifferentiated mass of sound, before the two voices separate again.
Esfahani played against a pre-recorded audio-track, and his driving tempo and absolute technical clarity turned the music into something both different and at the core of minimalism. This was differentiation and repetition of notes as the meshing of gears, cogs, and switches in the landscape of industry and automation. That is the rarely revealed cultural foundation of minimalism.
This utterly unconventional recital didn’t please all patrons, but the ovation brought Esfahani out to repeat Tomkins’ Pavan; “I’ll play it again, that’s why we call it an encore.” He then improvised his way beautifully through the music, making it a new experience altogether.
The Ariel Quartet plays in 92Y’s Soundspace series 8:30 p.m. April 26. 92y.org