Esfahani Stretches Harpsichord’s Era From Then To Now

Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani juxtaposes works of several centuries on his newest CD.
Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani juxtaposes works of several centuries on his newest CD.

Time Present and Time Past. Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Concerto Köln.
Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 479 4481

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Mahan Esfahani is a terrific harpsichordist with a beautiful touch and technique to burn. More to the point, he is an audacious programmer, turning traditional marketing of period harpsichord players on its head as the cover of his new CD, Time Present  and Time Past, makes clear.

Time Present and Time PastUp to this point, the harpsichord has been kept separate in its place either as an instrument for early music or as a spiky component of the contemporary tool kits of Ligeti, Schnittke, and Gorécki, among 20th-century composers who revived it. But the Iranian-American Esfahani sees no problem in juxtaposing these extremes on one disc, making a harpsichord sound like a contemporary instrument thoroughly in tune with the now as well as an ambassador from the past.

[Mahan Esfahani will be performing at the Zipper Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles Nov. 12 in a program of J.S. Bach, Erlebach and Telemann with members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and at a private villa in Brentwood Nov. 14 in a program called “Iran a la Carte.” Also he is in Seattle this Nov. 6-9 to record Dutilleux’s Les Citations with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony, part of the orchestra’s complete Dutilleux orchestral works cycle on its in-house label.]

Mahan Esfahani (
Esfahani – vintage Baroque to hardcore Reich. (

Esfahani starts Time Present and Time Past in vintage Baroque country with Alessandro Scarlatti’s glittering Variations on “La Follia.”  Then, with scarcely a pause for breath, he blithely skips three centuries ahead and tackles Górecki’s Harpsichord Concerto from 1980, with its obsessive ostinatos backed by austere strings in the first movement and manic repetitive joy in the second movement.

Back the intrepid harpsichordist goes to the 18th century for more variations on the “Follia” theme — C.P.E. Bach’s 12 Variations on “Les Folies d’Espagne,” and Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, leading Concerto Köln from the keyboard on the latter.

Then in the most radical move of all, Esfahani plunges headlong into hardcore Steve Reich by adapting his Piano Phase for Two Pianos (1967) for two period harpsichords, overdubbing one part on the other in a difficult yet neat trick of synchronization, the two instruments gradually drifting out of sync to create new textures before merging together again. To my ears, Piano Phase works much better for two harpsichords than it did in the original two-piano version due to the nature of the instruments. It’s sharper, clearer, brighter, and an even more startling experience than Reich probably imagined it could be. It’s a sensational performance, albeit one that might drive those not disposed to mind-warping, extended, highly-repetitive early minimalism mad.

The disc is topped off, perhaps anti-climactically, by J.S. Bach’s familiar Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052. Esfahani plays well, though Concerto Köln’s accompaniment is lockstep-stiff as per many a period-style ensemble. Yet this performance manages to point out the kinship in the mechanistic elements of minimalism and period-performance baroque, and so it fittingly sums up what Esfahani seems to be trying to prove.

The line on Deutsche Grammophon’s heretofore early-music-baroque-classical Archiv Produktion label will never be the same in the wake of this refreshingly bold issue.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.