In concert – Mahan Esfahani, CBSO / Ludovic Morlot: A Journey Through Time

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

Meanwhile for more information on composer Bent Sørensen, click here – and for the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Mahan Esfahani and Ludovic Morlot

On record – Mahan Esfahani: J.S. Bach – Toccatas (Hyperion)

J.S. Bach
Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910
Toccata in C minor BWV911
Toccata in D major BWV912
Toccata in D minor BWV913
Toccata in E minor BWV914
Toccata in G minor BWV915
Toccata in G major BWV916

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

Hyperion CDA 68244 [76’54”]

Recorded August 2019 at St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex

Producer Sébastian Chonion
Engineer David Hinitt

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Mahan Esfahani has been playing a lot of J.S. Bach lately. With a series of the composer’s complete keyboard works ongoing at the Wigmore Hall, and with a well-received account of the Goldberg Variations in the bag from his stint at Deutsche Grammophon, now would seem the ideal time to document his thoughts on some of Bach’s most extrovert and unpredictable works for harpsichord, the Toccatas.

What’s the music like?

Exuberant and even flamboyant. Those are two words you might not readily apply to Bach, certainly in the wrong performance, but this is the sort of recording to remind you that not only was Johann Sebastian a master of the more theoretical processes in music, he could write music of breathtaking originality too.

The Toccatas are the work of a young man looking to experiment and explore, and also to entertain. Esfahani really captures that spirit of freedom from the first to last notes, the Toccata in G major setting us down in a crumpled heap around 76 minutes later.

It helps to have the performer’s accompanying notes on the works, and how difficult it is to arrive at a scholarly direction on how they should be played. What matters as much is the performer’s input, and – as he acknowledges – the producer and engineer, to whom he expresses heartfelt thanks as his own ‘therapists’.

Does it all work?

Emphatically, yes. This feels like just the right stage in Esfahani’s career for him to tackle these works, and his response is stylish and reverent, outgoing too – so that the more overtly display-dominated items are real audience pleasers, and the telling pauses or slow passages are delivered with gravitas and great feeling.

For there is music of great theatre and occasion here. Presented in catalogue order, we begin with the Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910, which begins with a thrilling rush of the right hand, before dance figures take over. A stern central section leads to a rediscovery of its positive stance towards the end.

The Toccata in C minor BWV911 follows, its fugue deliberately paced to start with and then allowed to pick up its natural momentum. Esfahani, so assured in his playing, brings each part in with a firm inevitability as the closing pages approach before signing off emphatically.

The Toccata in D major BWV912 features some really impressive, florid passage work, while the D minor work, BWV813, feels like an answer with its stern, imposing contours. This work really springs forward in Esfahani’s hands around the 3:30 mark, before a superb, authoritative finish, with the pleasure of hearing the keys released at the end.

The instrument’s lower register really sings in the Toccata in E minor BWV914, notable for its bold lines, before an extremely descriptive episode that is so strongly characterised it feels like a scene from a play. When the big rush of counterpoint comes later, Esfahani again exerts close control.

The Toccata in G minor BWV915 starts with a sense of occasion, a cascade in the right hand before a nimble dance and a flourish, before the final Toccata in G major BWV916, a solo concerto in all but name. This has a celebratory air, its descending motif in clumps of chords rather like a peal of bells. Then a slow, thoughtful movement in E minor (the closest relative key of G) provides a reflective episode before a lively return home for an upbeat finale.

Complementing these seven impressive utterances are an ideal harpsichord sound and recording, the church chosen by Hyperion offering just the right amount of depth to the recorded sound, so we hear the clarity of Bach’s writing but also its ambitious scope.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. If you tend towards the organ works when listening to Bach played on the keyboard, this is just the disc to show you what you are missing on the harpsichord side of the equation.

Mahan Esfahani plays these works with formidable technique and with passion too, taking every opportunity to bring Bach’s flourishing works to life. What a cover, too!

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats, you can visit the Hyperion website