Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot
Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)
Sørensen Sei Anime (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK premiere]
C.P.E. Bach Harpsichord Concerto in D major, H421 (c1745)
Stravinsky Pulcinella – Suite (1922)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 28 April 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
A concert with a difference this evening from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, featuring harpsichord concertos ‘ancient and modern’ alongside two staples of the chamber-orchestra repertoire from the early 20th century in a programme as balanced as it was equable.
His final major work for solo piano, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (or at least four of its six movements) is more often heard in the orchestral transcription that accentuates its mood of searching pathos. Not least the Prélude, its liquid motion unerringly conveyed, or in the astringent humour of the Forlane. The Menuet featured a melting oboe contribution from Oliver Nordahl, then in the final Rigaudon Ludovic Morlot avoided an unduly rapid tempo – vividly characterizing the outer sections while drawing confessional intimacy from its trio.
Harpsichordists are infrequent visitors to orchestral concerts, so credit to Mahan Esfahani (above) for tackling two very different yet strikingly complementary works – including the first hearing in this country of another CBSO Centenary Commission. Inspired by matters mundane and metaphysical, the six short movements of Sei Anime have been likened by Bent Sørensen to a French Suite in its expressive contrasts. Unforced alternation of (relatively) slow and fast dances drew an always inquisitive response from the soloist, heard in the context of reduced yet diverse forces that included a range of percussion adeptly handled by Adrian Spillett and the ethereal tones of an accordion played by violinist Kirsty Lovie. By turns enchanting and disquieting, the piece raised many more questions than could be answered at a first hearing.
Esfahani was on familiar ground after the interval with a Harpsichord Concerto in D major by C.P.E. Bach (which this reviewer recalls last hearing at a 70th birthday concert by George Malcolm). If not among his more exploratory works in the medium, this certainly ranks among his most appealing – its three movements perfectly balanced as to form and content such that the lively interplay between soloist and strings in the initial Allegro is complemented with the urbanity and poise of its central Andante, the final Allegro maintaining a scintillating onward motion though to its close. Music such as this most engaging of present-day harpsichordists rendered with unceasing clarity and verve, not least in those cadenzas where the figured-bass writing brought an extemporization whose immediacy never drew attention from the music at hand.
Having proved the deftest of accompanists, Morlot presided over a sparkling account of the suite Stravinsky took from his ballet Pulcinella. Again, it was the lucidity of the woodwind that really came through – not least in the plaintive Serenata or the elegant Gavotta with its two graceful variations. Nor was there any lack of robustness in the opening Sinfonia or, thanks to trombonist Richard Watkin, deadpan humour in the Duetto. An eloquent take on the ensuing Menuetto prepared ideally for the Finale to bring about the uproarious close.
A rewarding concert which deserved a bigger attendance than it received. Those deterred by this ‘journey through time’ will no doubt feel on safer ground next Wednesday, when future chief conductor Kazuki Yamada directs a programme of Prokofiev, Bruch and Mendelssohn.
For more information on the CBSO’s 2021-22 season, click here