Composers: Bach
Compositions: Toccatas
Performers: Mahan Esfahani hpscd
Catalogue Number: Hyperion CDA68244

Mahan Esfahani is as thoughtful and provocative a writer as he is a musician. I’ve spent almost as much time reading and re-reading his booklet essays as I have listening to his performances. The reality is they’re two sides of the same coin, informing each other in a way literary analyses and texts rarely do. Maybe that’s because Esfahani is also a (re)creative artist, a co-creator. When, in the essay accompanying these remarkable performances, he writes of “scores so clearly in need of the (respectful) intervention – or, rather, participation – of a performer,” this is what he’s talking about.

I’ve highlighted lots of passages. Where Esfahani writes of the “ornamental habits” of the works’ copyists, including JC Bach the Elder. Of how Bach would never have been prescriptive when it came to the ornamental taste of the performer, and that there’s a difference between a specific rhetoric and the ornamentation “that helps to underline that rhetoric”. Most crucially, perhaps, of seeing “the combination of the earthy free sections of the toccatas with the highly abstract, ‘divine’ truth of the fugues as a meeting point of human imperfection and godly perfection.”

There’s another way of seeing that combination, which I’m not entirely sure Esfahani wouldn’t also entertain: that the freer, improvisatory sections are true expressions of freedom through divine inspiration; whereas the tyranny of the fugue represents the inevitability of fate. Listen to how he embraces Bach’s extravagant rhetoric in the first section of the F Sharp Minor Toccata, or indulges in a frankly theatrical accelerando in the D Minor Toccata, or savours the deep trills of the D Major’s slow section.

The use of generous fermatas, of an extremely flexible pulse, of phrasing, of embellishment is utterly consistent with a profound sympathy with Bach’s temperamental love of freedom, of independence. Then I hear the fugues. And I hear exactly the same thing. This time, however, there’s the sense Esfahani, as much as Bach, is intentionally labouring under self-imposed constraints in order to stimulate a heightened imaginative intensity. It’s really something.