Springing Across Epochs And Styles On Harpsichord

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s recital ranged from William Byrd to Steve Reich. (Photo by Marco Borggreve)
By William Albright

HOUSTON ‒ The marrying of old and new in one program was the guiding principle of  33-year-old harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s  “From Renaissance to Reich” recital on the Da Camera series Dec. 12. Performed in a gallery within the globally eclectic Menil Collection art museum, the program ranged from the harpsichord’s traditional realm to minimalism and electronic music. As such, Esfahani was channeling the original mission of Monday Evening Concerts, which has been bringing new music – and sometimes old music dating back as far as the 12th century – to Los Angeles since 1939.

Esfahani performed on the Da Camera series at the Menil Collection. (Kevin Keim)

The epoch-hopping evening opened with William Byrd’s Ninth Pavan and Galliard, “Passing Measures.” The 10-minute 1591 bonbon brims with filigreed passagework and has a bit of a modern association: Glenn Gould liked Byrd’s music and recorded the First and Sixth Pavan and Galliard, among other things. Now professor of harpsichord at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Esfahani dispatched it with the pristine virtuosity he displayed all night.

He then jumped ahead 400 years for Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming. In this 1986 opus, the harpsichord is quietly but somewhat spikily meditative for six luminous minutes.

The first half of the program closed with Set of Four by Henry Cowell, whom his student John Cage called “the father of experimental music in the United States.” Cowell’s music is rarely heard these days, but I think it resonates with Esfahani for personal as well as aesthetic reasons. For one thing, Cowell’s Homage to Iran (1959) for violin, piano, and Persian drum must strike a chord with the Tehran-born, U.S.-reared, Stanford-educated musician. For another, Set of Four from the following year was written for and premiered by Ralph Kirkpatrick, one of Esfahani’s early heroes.

After a serious, stately opening, the first section of the 16-minute work, titled “Rondo,” turns jittery, dramatic, dense, and jagged by turns. Esfahani’s nimble fingers were again on display in the lively, busy “Ostinato” segment. Kirkpatrick has said that the following “Chorale” reminded him of the hymns he heard as a boy in his Massachusetts church – “psalm tunes played on an old wheezy harmonium” – and Esfahani played the piece with the singing line he insists plucked-string instruments can produce. The concluding “Fugue and Résumé” was an exercise in successively spidery, grave, and monumental lines and textures.

More music with personal connections for Esfahani followed after intermission.

Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková taught Esfahani.

He studied with Zuzana Růžičková – the noted harpsichordist who died in Sept. 2017 at the age of 90 –  and wrote the admiring booklet note for her recently re-released Erato set of Bach’s complete keyboard works. For 54 years, Růžičková was married to Viktor Kalabis, whose eight-minute set of Three Aquarelles (1979) introduced me to a composer I hadn’t encountered before. And both were born in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic where Esfahani currently resides.

The sections are numbered rather than named. The first was marked by soft, tinkly figures high up on the keyboard, but Esfahani drew some astonishingly dense and uncharacteristically fortissimo eruptions from the harpsichord in the third.

Esfahani once worked with Kaija Saariaho for a summer, and the Finnish composer’s 11-minute Jardin Secret II (1984/86) is a product of her study of the use of computers in music at Pierre Boulez’s Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. No relation to the titular secret garden in the 1911 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Saariaho’s oasis has a speaker in each corner of the performance space. They pipe in a four-channel audio recording with which the harpsichord interacts. The music, Esfahani noted, explores where the human stops and the machine takes over. The computer-generated audio – which Saariaho herself operated when Esfahani performed the work that summer – produces sighs, thumps, bumps, scratching and whirring sounds, sighs, syncopated percussion, and a siren wail before a low drone slowly fades. The solo harpsichord has the last word in the form of some lacy jingling.

Bach is, of course, central to any harpsichordist’s career, and Esfahani is in the multi-year process of performing all the keyboard works in London’s Wigmore Hall and also recording them. Here, he limited himself to the Toccata in F-sharp Minor, BWV 910, playing it with crisp articulation, springy rhythm, and expressive touches of tempo elasticity.

Steve Reich: His ‘Piano Phase’ is
a signature piece for Esfahani.

Esfahani’s version of Steve Reich’s 50-year-old Piano Phase for two pianos, two marimbas, or piano and tape is something of a signature piece for him. It caused an uproar when he took it to Cologne last year, and it’s included in his Time Present and Time Past CD on Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv label (you can read a review here).

Here, Esfahani played second fiddle to his recorded performance of the first keyboard part. Both parts involve the motoric repetition of a busy, close-knit pattern over 18 minutes. As the patterns are subtly, minutely altered and the two iterations slowly go out of phase and then back in, the sound picture becomes more complex, the textures more intertwined and overlapping. In the last third of the piece, the somewhat wearing intensity gives way to a sunnier, more upbeat finale that abruptly stops instead of coming to a resolution. Listening to oneself and playing something slightly different for a time would seem to be infinitely harder than the old challenge of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, and Esfahani performed the feat with laser-like concentration.

Forgoing the scores employed elsewhere and announcing “This one you might know,” Esfahani closed his fascinating program with a return to melody and calm in a solo keyboard version of the air “Bist du bei mir,” BWV 508, from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook.

On loan from Bach Society Houston, the instrument Esfahani played was built by the Dutch maker Jan Kalsbeek and based on the work of Michael Mietke (c. 1656/71–1719), who was appointed the Brandenburg Court harpsichord maker by Friedrich I.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles TimesChristian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.