Recently, I have noticed there are a number of new harpsichordists on the scene. It speaks to the interest young musicians have for the instrument, the music written for the instrument, not to mention the historically-informed performance practice movement than began to put out harpsichord music with more regularity in the 1980s and 90s. Over a year ago, Mr. Esfahani came to my attention through a friend; I later noticed his engagement with the English-based Academy of Ancient Music through their video series. Mahan Esfahani has recently been awarded a Gramophone Award for his recording of pieces by C.P.E. Bach on Hyperion, which I will admit to having purchased and enjoyed. His second release is the focus on the current review, the complete solo harpsichord music of Jean-Philippe Rameau entitled Pièces de Clavecin, again on Hyperion. Since this recording was announced, Esfahani has announced a new recording contract with Deustche Grammophone.
Esfahani’s biography is easy enough to find online, as well as are videos of him talking about music and performing. Originally from Iran, he studied at Stanford and now makes London home. When you watch the videos, or else read the liner notes from this release, it is obvious to me (and perhaps too to you) that Esfahani deeply involves himself in the music, not only absorbing the historical context of the music, but also the Affekt, to the point putting himself into the interpretation. In the notes for the pieces by Rameau, he not only talks about instances of Rameau and his music, but also of other sources of inspiration Esfahani has considered for individual pieces. I am nearly certain many performers likely do this, but I enjoy his transparency in writing about it. It is easy, perhaps, for us to forget that the music playing through the stereo is not just from an instrument builder and a (dead) composer; there’s still a living, breathing person responsible for the music, but also the emotional response we have.
As a point of comparison, I searched through my collection for more Rameau. I found my complete recording of the same repertoire by Christophe Rousset (Decca/L’Oiseau-Lyre), his later reading of the first Suite in A minor on very recent release coupled with the music of Louis Marchand. I remember at the time of purchasing this release how splendid it was, interesting, rich, and colorful.
Skip Sempé has also recorded Rameau, but has stayed away mostly from his keyboard pièces, instead recording arrangements of opera numbers and his chamber music with colleagues Olivier Fortin and Pierre Hantaï. I have just 7 pieces from the recording of “Masterpieces of French Harpsichord Music” by Gustav Leonhardt. I have a small(er) selection of pieces than what Esfahani recorded by the pianist Alexanre Tharaud. Needless to say, Esfahani is up against some good competition with his new release. The question we may have is “Does he say something differently than those that have come before?”
In many cases Esfahani chooses somewhat slower tempi than Rousset, not always by much, but enough in some of the more familiar pieces. His style, compared to the examples that I own, seems most similar to Leonhardt. Esfahani, perhaps more than all the others, contributes just enough organic “humanity” in the pieces (where, with Leonhardt it's less perceptable) letting the pulse of the music succumb to a little flexibility and stretch, not unlike a singer might do with the context of words. The musical term for this is rubato, and it is not clear to me how authentic it would have been to the performance style at the time, or to get very specific, Rameau's own style. But I am often in favor of performers who play this way, as opposed to something akin to a mechanical timepiece. The rubato feel is most apparent to me in La Dauphine, a short piece that did not fit into any one of Rameau’s suites.
Esfahani also uses a different kind of trill than I’ve heard before, but it’s used enough not to sound like a mistake, and gives the music an extra morsel of character. It’s characterize it like a hiccup, and it’s very audible in a piece such as La Follette. After the first two notes there's a small pause, before more alternations of notes follow, just slightly faster.
Esfahani is also not shy of changing color. First, he adopts different tunings for the pieces, depending upon their age, working up to equal temperament for the last piece. He plays on an historical instrument, first built in the 1600s, and later expanded. It has a very light sound, which he alters by using the two keyboards set at different positions, sometimes using the lute stop. For the piece he translates as Conference of the Birds, he even changes color further by going an octave higher on the keyboard. It’s an arresting but effective choice, at least for someone who has heard the piece before, with his shift in hands at the repeat.
The instrument has a delicate tone, and the recorded sound quality is excellent. Comparing recordings, it's a very nicely captured harpsichord. A choice in instrument is really important for harpsichord players. I find the sound between instruments (not to mention the sound among different locations, with different microphone positions) is quite noticeable, moreso, than say piano sounds. A sound you do not like (or a poorly recorded instrument) can kill a performance, despite the artistry of the performer. My first go-to example is Pinnock's first recording of Bach's Partitas, on DG Archiv (too much reverb, and recorded with microphones far too far away). Esfahani was lucky to get the use of this instrument, and doubly so for having it captured so naturally by Hyperion.
In all, I felt like Esfahani was taking his time with the music, exploring the melodies and harmonies with care. I wished occasionally, in pieces such as the Gavotte avec doubles, that a faster tempo was adopted; it’s likely the most showy of Rameau’s pieces, and can be a real virtuosic tour-de-force. Another example is the character piece L’egiptienne, where the tempo but also the lighter texture of one hand robs the piece of a little bit of its power.
I have a few instances of things I did not like. There was present in more than one occasion what I would call pregnant or uncomfortable pauses in the music. It happens a bit in the reading of La poule (track 11, disc 2), the ending of La Dauphine (track 16, disc 2), and perhaps something different, the pauses between the variations on the Gavotte (track 7, disc 2). In the first cases, these could be related to a rhetorically-related choice he's making that I don't understand; in the last example, I think it's something that should have been resolved in the editing of the recording. My preference for hearing the variation right after the previous music, I know, is firmly based on hearing othe recordings. I also recognize that the reality may have been that there were page turns, or shifts in music to be made, between one section and the next. In the first variation, there's a shift in one of the keyboards, for instance, for a different color. These could demand a longer pause. It's also not uncommon after finishing a section to pause to collect your thoughts, perhaps, before moving onto the next piece. But without the visual of someone playing, and moving their hand to turn a page, or say, looking down with closed eyes, deep in the moment, I get the sensation of a slow start to the next part. However long it really took, I think the next section should have started on the next "beat" (as if the metronome never stopped). As a point of reference, Gould elimatined the pause after the Aria in his 1981 reading of the Goldberg Variations before going into the first variation. Instead of having a silent beat, he just takes off. I think for that recording the practice was effective. At any rate, what appears to be more "standard" in sets of variations is what I'd call "a breath" between one variation (or the original theme) and the next.
In the end, I think there is quite a bit to like from the hands of Mahan Esfahani, displaying sensitivity, some showiness (likely the most overt in La Dauphine), but above all, evidence of the human behind the music, as evidenced by Esfahani’s ability to change color and stretch time in subtle ways. Better yet, it’s presented on an instrument that is clear and tender sounding. The readings of French music by Skip Sempé is far more geared towards virtuosity, which is sometimes a nice joy, too. It’s too bad Rameau did not leave us more keyboard music, but that which he did is of high quality. I’m happy to add this new addition to my collection to reveal to me even more about the composer, but also the composer’s ability to move me through another outstanding interpretation.