Mahan Esfahani has joined forces with DG Archiv ensemble Concerto Köln for a release entitled Time Present and Time Past. It’s a curious concept that stays more in the past than in “the present.”
Composers represented include:
- Alessandro Scarlatti, (c. 1710)
- Henryk Gorecki, (1980)
- CPE Bach, (c. 1780)
- Francesco Geminiani, (c. 1750)
- Steve Reich, (1967)
- JS Bach, and (c. 1727)
- GF Handel (c. 1730)
The liner notes indicate that the artist’s “muse” (my words, not his) for this project was T.S. Eliot. The musical germ was minimalism. He’s drawing a connection between minimalist composition and variations on La Folia. I get the idea but the musical results are very different. But I get it. The “Folia” tune is a germ, a “small idea,” that is then elaborated upon to make a complete piece. It’s clearly a theme and variations, and it is built upon a simple idea (the original tune), but we can’t reduce a piece like Phases by Reich to be a variations piece.
Characterizing the concerto by J. S. Bach (BWV 1052) as something built using a minimalist toolset is perhaps even far-fetched. Despite the repetition in Bach of rhythmic motives, to discuss the construction of music by Bach without referencing the baroque Italian concerto structure or counterpoint is missing the design. In the end, I’m not sure I follow the musical germ referenced; the poetry by Eliot is perhaps the better thread to weave these pieces together. In the end, it may not matter; inspiration and ideas can be very loosely linked.
I’ve taken some guesses above for the baroque works, but wanted to provide a concept for when the pieces were composed. For me, I do not think the album works “as an album” very well, and I think as a complete concept it’s disappointing. Certainly other artists have tried to combine “old and new” with far more success than what I think resides in this recording. I recognize the desire for an bold program, but the jarring stylistic differences between the pieces for me do not make a coherent musical experience.
So, that matter aside, let’s look at the musical performances. I’ll separate them out by “past” then “present.”
A “Folias” recording is not new, but Esfahani really might have explored one. He’s included three versions here, but curiously, the third, by Geminiani, is his concerto grosso version of the Corelli op. 5 version for violin and continuo. It does give Concerto Köln an opportunity to shine as the second talent listed on the recording, but is a curious choice in an album that’s supposedly featuring an up and coming harpsichordist as their premier release on this label.
Alessandro was of course Domenico’s father, and while not known as a keyboard composer, his version is musically interesting and chock full of inventive ideas. Esfahani uses this opening track to establish his technical ability and athletic fingers. His Rameau release on Hyperion for me escaped this brand of athletic virtuosity, but I am glad to see it here. All the more pleasurable with a well-recorded sound. My only reservation about this performance is the slower interlude before the final flourish, I felt the performer was less sure about how to balance all of that fun and fancy-free front end of the piece with something dramatic before it returns to a flurry of energy.
The piece doesn’t properly end either, it goes straight into the Gorecki concerto.
Bach’s son, known as a professional keyboard player (and composer in the pre-classical Galant style), is next in the line-up, with his variations on La Folia d’Espagne. Unlike Scarlatti’s version which was a more coherently conceived work, Bach’s variations are more like separate miniature pieces, like different paintings on display in a museum. Some canvases are large and colorful, others are small and dim, with glittery gold frames. Esfahani might have conceived of them this way, but I find how he treats going from one to another just too disjointed for my taste. (Taking my analogy, I would have hung the paintings closer together.) In his Rameau release, I found his pauses in the music to be of an unnatural length, and again here, the pauses just feel a tad too long between each variation. There is no silent relationship with these pauses with a common pulse between one miniature and the next, except with two adjoining ideas near the end where he’s chosen to keep the pulse going without the pregnant break. A few of these pauses might have been appropriate to arrest our attention, but all of them together defeat the overall flow of the piece.
Too, this piece does not feel it has a proper ending, but instead somewhat naturally follows into the next piece, this time the variations by Corelli as arranged by Geminiani.
As a point of comparison, I have the version recorded by the Academy of Ancient Music under Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi). Under Manze’s direction, the violin rises above the texture from time to time, as might have been expected. It is written that way with a concertino setting, but with Manze, the violinist/conductor has a louder voice. That said, the violin playing and the overall ensemble sound by Concerto Kôln is nice; the sound especially is rich and is augmented with a very closely miked lute that plays an active role in the continuo section.
Esfahani’s contribution is audible in this ensemble piece, but again, I’m wondering why they chose an ensemble piece where the “soloist” is reading the continuo line. If I were to guess who the star in the ensemble was, after the lead violinist, I'd guess the lute! The lutenist Michael Dücker is the next most prominent voice in the ensemble. The one thing director Manze does better (not clear if they’re being directed here, as CK typically plays without an established director, somewhat like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), is to bridge the variations with a sense of perpetual motion—no pregnant pauses between variations. For me, Manze’s version ends the piece with more drama and fireworks (which was later repeated in his Corelli-violin version, to a higher degree, with Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi). The final variation by Concerto Köln seems to lack finesse; they do work up to a climax, but compared or not to the London ensemble, it doesn’t feel like it all just fits together quite right.
The Concerto in D minor by J.S. Bach is likely my favorite of his harpsichord concertos; this version opens with the ensemble all of a sudden sounding slightly muddy, with slightly boomy middle bass. I’m gathering they pushed Esfahani closer to the microphones and pushed the ensemble back. These concertos are challenging to record because of the balance of a soft instrument with a small to medium sized “chamber” orchestra. The balance here definitely favors the harpsichord, which comes across very clear. Having heard the Bach concertos live, i wonder if the balance is not just a bit unnaturally balanced to favor the harpsichord? It’s not a bad thing, but interesting to me is how loud and prevalent the lute remains in the mix. At times, it seems to be competition for the harpsichord. I find it to be a distracting texture with the harpsichord and would have left the lute out for this number.
The first track revealed for me that Esfahani is using an unequal temperament for the tuning of the instrument, it gave a special flavor to the sound for the Scarlatti. The middle movement of the Bach concerto too is utilizing one of those “interesting” tunings, that, if I’m not mistaken, hasn’t necessarily been echoed by the ensemble. The result on the ear, at least with the few listens I have had thus far, almost sound like someone’s out of tune. Makes you think “ew, something isn’t quite right here…” If the ensemble is indeed playing with a tempered tuning in sync with Esfahani, then, it doesn’t matter, because the effect is still… strange.
The final movement features a cadenza on the harpsichord, but according to the notes it’s by Brahms, not Esfahani. I think a cadenza does belong in this concerto, as does the few little flourishes Esfahani manages to insert. Here would have been an opportunity to insert something more modern, perhaps, from “time present.”
The bonus track (iTunes edition) is from Handel, his Air and Variations on “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” The instrument used in this one is gorgeous sounding; the distance from the microphone sounds different (more reverb), but in this configuration, is a real treat. The two instruments used are listed as a 2012 Zander and a 2010 Hungerberg, both copies of baroque originals. The Zander is listed as the instrument used for the opening Scarlatti, and possess more of a delicate clarity.
Up to this point, Esfahani has proven his chops as a very gifted harpsichordist. Playing with a “guest” ensemble presents issues, like how much you can shape their contribution and interpretation in a recording. My criticisms up to this point are small ones, and if I could summarize, it would be to focus on how to view the pieces more horizontally, rather than as connected chunks. The “Time Present” pieces have, for me, a better sense of over all line from start to finish, but that may be too because of their design.
The Gorecki harpsichord concerto, op. 40, is a two movement work, with a very post modern aesthetic. Here the association with minimalist music is more apt; pattern has a role in this work, and the harpsichord’s contribution in the first movement seems part of a larger mechanical machine. The architecture of the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles comes to mind with this piece; the metallic-sounding keyboard aligns with the metallic ribbons popular in many Gehry works. The opening sounds oppressive and dark, Disney Hall at night. Frankly, after awhile, I just want to turn it off.
The second movement is lighter in texture and aesthetic, allowing the harpsichord its moments in the sunshine. I pictured sunlight pouring into the Disney Hall. It’s fun and frivolous in sections, but still is reliant upon repetition and doesn’t try to reference the “baroque sound” so much despite the instrumentation. Compared to the Glass harpsichord concerto, however, Gorecki relies upon a lot of tonal dissonance (which, when played the harpsichord is somewhat interesting, almost referencing Domenico Scarlatti). I find it in the orchestral texture to be trying on repeat.
This concerto might make for a great concert piece as it will likely not be well known and can be appreciated by way of its contrast to more lyrical works. I have to wonder what it’s doing on an Archiv Produktion recording, and wonder how many listeners will want to listen to this one over and over?
The remaining piece is Steve Reich’s Piano Phase but of course here it’s realized on “two harpsichords”; the first instrument is presented on the left channel, and the right pulls in the recording from the second. We have to use “quotes” here because of course this is a “tape” piece meant for a performer to play against himself using a tape recorder.
I like Reich as a composer, especially his later works, and I understand the place pieces like these belong in our musical history. I think of them as “concept” pieces, novel and innovative applications of just a few materials to make something interesting and challenge our notion of what qualifies as art.
This piece could only have been conceived with technology, and the harpsichord timbre with modern, clean, digital recording technology reveals, under Esfahani, a pristine result. The opening photo of Esfahani in the album includes a quote by Reich about this track: “Mahan Esfahani has made a brilliant recording of Piano Phase. His attention to detail makes the music absolutely sparkle. I am extremely impressed and moved by his performance.” Nice kudos.
Sigh. I did not want to listen to this again after one listen. For me, it’s a concept. After Warhol created his first soup can, and his first Marilyn, the other iterations to me were easy to ignore. Piano phase is a clever experiment. I’m sorry to report, unlike for the composer, it didn’t move me; on the second listen, it had me moving for the stop button. And I don’t think it belongs between Geminiani and Bach.
This new recording challenged me. Within, there is technical brilliance, but if there’s a “theme” for why it disappoints, it might be the lack of vision for the “whole egg"--the pauses between variations, instead of a piece that starts with one idea that gets carried through, in the same breath, to the last note. I think of pieces as a big Cadbury Cream egg, not a small bag of their crunchy chocolate mini eggs. For me, it’s the same theme that relates to the program of chosen pieces. Maybe some of those choices were pragmatic. Maybe Gorecki, Reich, and an assortment of other contemporary composers (perhaps Glass, Adler, and Ligeti) is not something DG knew how to market. I will give ME and DG Archiv props on taking chances, going bold, and putting their dollars towards a high production value. But for this fan of barqoue repertoire, and even 20th century minimalism, I simply don’t get an easy feeling with the confluence of time past and time present. And while it may be disappointing, as an album concept for me, I wouldn’t want to discourage ME and DG Archiv on continuing to think outside of the box. Just as we have already been “unchecking” the duds from mainstream albums that are not all composed of “hits,” at the end of the day, I have three tracks to un-check and still can take pleasure in the technical mastery left by the pen of Scarlatti, the Bachs, and Handel and in the recorded artistry of Mr. Esfahani.