Mahan Esfahani, the young Iranian-American harpsichordist, is becoming one of the most ardent promoters of the instrument today. After a formation that included studies with Australian harpsichordist, Peter Watchorn, he has been bringing the music to new audiences, including the first ever solo harpsichord recital presented at the BBC Proms in 2011.
Esfahani is clearly captivated by these sonatas from one of the Bach clan’s most notable scions. Written just before Carl Philipp Emmanuel turned 30 and published in the year he married his wife, the sonatas are dedicated to one of his former students, the Duke of Württenmberg. They embody the marvellous (and mischievous) nonconformist musical attitudes of the age by juxtaposing seemingly random and unconnected passages as part of a whole. This presents the performer with numerous expressive possibilities as well as considerable interpretative challenges.
Using a beautiful instrument (which includes an unusual four-foot “flute” register) based
on the work of Michael Mietke (1671-1719), maker of harpsichords to the Berlin court, Esfahani delights in the extraordinary range of colour, texture and mood in these pieces. All is sensitively recorded by Hyperion’s engineers.
Whether it is the caprice and operatic mock-seriousness that opens the Sonata in B Minor or the vocally inspired material of the Sonata in A Flat, Esfahani is always intent on making musical sense of each idea, revealing its proper affekt and then melding these often very different elements into a convincing totality.
His sense of musical freedom sets him apart from some of the more dogmatic players of previous generations. He allows the music plenty of room to breathe and lets the listener appreciate the often rhetorical or humorous nature of these sonatas. The E Flat Major is a case in point: the first movement’s question and answer elements are well delineated while the superbly lyrical second movement unfolds with admirable serenity.
In his detailed descriptive notes Esfahani rails against those who would pigeon-hole this music into a particular “period”. Given the music’s magpie-like appropriation of older and newer styles, this makes perfect sense, but I can’t help thinking of the original meaning of the word “baroque” as an irregularly shaped pearl. Surely here we have some splendid pearls that are no less beautiful for being strikingly diverse.
This fresh and insightful recording is a very welcome offering in this 300th anniversary year of CPE’s birth. More please.