Album review: Mahan Esfahani’s «Musique»? – A recital of delightful challenges

Through a series random encounters, my first exposures to the realm of the harpsichord happened via twentieth century music. Pieces like György Ligeti’s Continuum (1968) and Kaija Saariaho’s Jardin Secret II (1984-86) served as my guides, alongside concertos by Manuel de Falla, Francis Poulenc and Henryk Górecki, not forgetting the instrument’s delightful appearances on several film scores.

In this respect, the idea of the harpsichord as an antiquated instrument, only brought back to life by the historically informed performance practice, has always seemed somewhat lopsided. 

Featuring an imaginative playlist of six works from the 1960s to the present day, the latest album by the wonderful harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, provides an extraordinary tour through the repertoire of the other kind. Titled « Musique »?, the Hyperion disc might be considered provocative, though not in a superficial, attention-seeking sense. Rather, the album is conceived in a genuinely challenging, thought-provoking manner. 

While pieces by Ligeti, Górecki and Steve Reich have already appeared on Esfahani’s previous albums, alongside baroque repertoire, this is his first CD dedicated to the 20th and 21st century music in its entirety. 

Among the six composers included in this album, a joyful variety of musical idioms come together, yielding to a programme of extraordinary appeal. 

Tōru Takemitsu’s spellbinding Rain Dreaming (1986) opens the album, with its first notes rippling gently from the keyboard, in an almost onomatopoetic manner. Soon, more extended musical phrases appear, as the music is turned into dazzling fantasy, a dreamscape rooted in Takemitsu’s splendid imagination.

The opening gesture reappears in the middle of the the six-minute piece, leading to another fantasy sequence, with sonic images arising and evaporating, as if in a dream. In the end, the music is woven back to its beginning, arriving to its beautiful close.

With Esfahani as its herald, Rain Dreaming makes a truly spellbinding album opening. As ever with Takemitsu, the sounding fabric is clad in the most fascinating harmonies, wondrously realized in Esfahani’s translucent approach.

As laid bare by its title, Henry Cowell’s Set of Four (1960) is conceived as a set of studies on formal implications of a rondo, an ostinato, a chorale and a fugue. Viewed through Cowell’s (re)imagination, each of the four studies look both back and forward, yielding to fascinating timelessness.

Performed with commitment and invention by Esfahani, Cowell’s intriguing hall of mirrors is an absorbing musical entity, one to dwell in with invigorating delight.   

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahni photographed by © Kaja Smith

Kaija Saariaho’s Jardin Secert II forms the middle piece in the series of three 1980s compositions with electronics. The series was begun with purely electronic Jardin Secret I (1985) and finished with Jardin Secret III, better known as Nymphea (1987), Saariaho’s first string quartet. In between, there is the eleven-minute Jardin Secret II for harpsichord and electronics, one of the most intriguing scores of the composer’s early(ish) output.

Created at IRCAM, the tape part of Jardin Secret II is based on the human voice and the sounds of the harpsichord, extensively processed and spatialized, creating a sonic cosmos for the harpsichord to navigate.

A rapid cascade of repeated notes sets the music in motion, refrained by the electronic sounds. The rhythmic aspect is of key importance, developed in dialogue between the harpsichord and the computer-processed tape part. In addition to the rhythmic endeavors, the music travels through astounding timbral realms, both the keyboard part and the tape considered. 

Within the electronic hue, the ear picks associations to various auditory phenomena, such as breathing patterns, train sounds and bells. 

From the keyboard, various chordal patterns, arpeggios and thrills emanate, giving rise to captivating textures, ever impeccably mastered by Esfahani. Like Takemitsu, Saariaho is a summoner of realms of marvellous sonic enchantment, endorsed wholeheartedly by the enthralling performance.

Like the Cowell pieces, Gavin Bryars’s music often bears a stirring aura timelessness. While most evident in vocal pieces like the Cadman Requiem (1989) or the ever expanding collection of books of madrigals, some of Bryars’s instrumental music also appear hovering between the past, the present and the future.   

Although Bryars’s initial impetus forAfter Handel’s ’Vesper’ (1995) is rooted in the writings of John Cage, the music itself combines the influences of baroque keyboard styles and minimalist tendencies into riveting musical narrative, an imaginary scene brought to life by the solo harpsichordist.

While the keyboard textures in After Handel’s ’Vesper’ are often just one or two steps away from what Handel might have written, a thread of contemporary melancholy runs through the music, anchoring it to the present day. From a completely subjective point of view, I find After Handel’s ’Vesper’ almost cinematic in its dramaturgy of switching camera angles.

Esfahani is the perfect keyboard narrator for After Handel’s ’Vesper’, ever precise with detail and thoroughly sensitive to emotional nuance.    

Commissioned and premiered by Esfahani, Anahita Abbasi’s Intertwined Distances (2018) for harpsichord and electronics, is the most recent score on the album. The ravishing fourteen-minute piece could probably be described as a next-level toccata, a phenomenon both auditory and tactile. 

The intertwined distances suggested by the title are manifested in many guises; between the acoustic instrument and the electronic hue, between various keyboard textures and idioms or between registers. Among my several forays into the track, my preferred setting for Intertwined Distances was lying on the floor in a darkened room, with the music flooding the room. 

Within the wealth of Abbasi’s textures, one discovers a myriad of harpsichord sonorities, both alien and familiar, yet ever communicate and alluring. With Esfahani, the music ventures into hitherto unknown spheres, resulting in the most rewarding sonic and visceral experience. 

The album comes to its close with Luc Ferrari’s Programme commun « Musique sosialiste? » (1972), a twenty-minute journey for solo harpsichord and electronics. While the title refers to the French political scene of the early 1970s, the music itself seems to deal with something less specific, less time-bound.

Within the context of the album, Programme commun comes off as a kind of summa, drawing together some aspects of each of the preceding pieces. Seen from a personal, utmost subjective perspective, I was long puzzled by Ferrari’s piece as a standalone item. 

Mahan Esfahani by © Kaja Smith

After several complete sessions spent with the album, Programme commun began to gain new meanings, as if some threshold had been crossed. I still find it hard to spell out what my thoughts about this piece actually are, but on a perceptive level I feel drawn into it more and more. 

Among the delicate art of recital, « Musique »? is a gem. Intriguing and challenging, the disc yearns for repeated listenings, ever granted with joy. Recorded with skill and engineered with care, the Hyperion team provides Esfahani’s art with a top-class platform.

As for the question posed by the title of the album, the answer is a resounding ’yes’! 

Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord

Tōru Takemitsu: Rain Dreaming (1986) for harpsichord

Henry Cowell: Set of Four (1960) for harpsichord

Kaija Saariaho: Jardin Secret II (1984-86 (for harpsichord and tape)  

Gavin Bryars: After Handel’s ’Vesper’ (1995) for harpsichord

Anahita Abbasi: Intertwined Distances (2018) for harpsichord and electronics

Luc Ferrari: Programme commun « Musique sosialiste? » (1972) for solo harpsichord and electronics

Recorded in the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex, 1-4 July 2019

Hyperion CDA68287 (2020), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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