In the introduction to his First Book of Songs or Ayres of 1597, John Dowland writes of “this skilful and curious age”. Looking back now on the Elizabethan age, one reads “curious” in both senses of the word. Especially when confronted with the mysterious music contained on this latest recording from that most skilful and curious – again, in both senses of the latter word – of musicians, Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani.
Indeed, in a booklet essay (easily worth the price alone), Esfahani remembers an early encounter with the music of the English virginalists and how he chose to play it “because I was fascinated by the power of a music I didn’t quite understand”.
Subsequently immersing himself not just in this music but “the art, literature and history” surrounding it, he began to feel it was something he was “born to play”. Listening to this extraordinary recital, one can believe it. Maybe a good interpreter does just two things: reveal a world in a grain of sand; and try to communicate the “music” as opposed to just the music – that is, some intimation of the powerful subjective correspondences and resonances that arise from the collision between science and the imagination.
So yes, you as a listener might here pick up on echoes of madrigals, part-songs and anthems; music for mixed consorts of viols and recorders; pavanes, galliards, fantasies and divisions on popular tunes for lute.
You might even hear the poetry of Shakespeare and Spenser; the prose of Thomas Browne and even Robert Burton. Or see the bright miniatures of Nicholas Hilliard and the dark Jacobean carvings of a small country church like Croscombe’s St Mary the Virgin.
Or you might not. It depends on your inclinations. What won’t escape you in these utterly masterful performances is Esfahani’s ability to bring out the full expressive potential of this oft-underrated music by 16th and 17th-century masters such as Gibbons, Tomkins, Byrd, Farnaby and Blow.
Take, for example, Gibbons’ Pavin M. Orlando Gibbons, the trills, shakes and divisions as sensitively phrased as the larger sentences and paragraphs which are allowed to breathe through the agency of beautifully judged agogic accents and silences.
Such dark, brooding meditations are offset by lighter dances – galliards and gigues – and virtuosic divisions like those of Farnaby’s Wooddy-Cock. But the dominant mood, the presiding rhetoric, is the same as that of the age itself: melancholy.