'Compared to four books of pieces by Couperin and volumes upon volumes by JS Bach and his family, this is indeed a slim output. But what a wealth of genius it reveals. What excitement and wit and drama.' Thus writes Mahan Esfahani of the Baroque opera composer Jean-Philippe Rameau’s complete Pièces de Clavecin, which comprise a mere five suites and two or three stand-alone pieces.
'Wealth of genius.' 'Excitement and wit and drama.' Surely such phrases could also apply to the 31-year-old Iranian-American harpsichordist’s own output. He’s only made three solo harpsichord recordings so far, the first of which, devoted to CPE Bach’s Württemberg Sonatas (also for Hyperion), created a sensation when it was released in early 2014 and went on to win a slew of awards. But, along with Esfahani’s numerous acclaimed solo recitals and appearances with many of the world’s finest period instrument ensembles, it’s been enough to establish him as, well, somewhat of a genius.
Playing a sensitively restored two-manual Ruckers-Hemsch harpsichord in the Music Room at Hatchlands Park in Surrey, Esfahani here takes us on a journey through Rameau’s three collections—the Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin (1706) the Pièces de Clavecin (1724) and the Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin (c1730).
This is Rameau the technician, the theoretician, the magician, 'a man of the theatre' for whom the harpsichord ultimately became, again in Esfahani’s words, 'a substitute for the orchestra in a way that must have shocked his contemporaries'.
Generations of pianists and harpsichordists have found these works irresistible, and among my favourite performers are harpsichordists Scott Ross and Trevor Pinnock, and pianists Marcelle Meyer and Angela Hewitt.
But Esfahani does something special and, I think, unique here, so identifying his own maverick intelligence with Rameau’s supple, refined use of wit and irony in relation to received forms that the only parallel I can think of are poets such as Baudelaire. Naturally, I don’t mean finding beauty in ugliness. I’m talking about an arch urbanity, which is manifested as much in the counterpoint between sharply articulated phrasing and exquisitely nuanced trills in dance movements, such as the courantes, as in the subtle insincerity pervading the opening Rondeau of the D Major Suite, Les tendres plaintes.
For examples of a more sincere humanity, turn to the sensitively realised character pieces such as Le Rappel des Oiseaux, La Villageoise, Les Cyclopes and the famous La Poule. But for sheer narrative drive and dramatic force enlivened by sonorous, aquarelle swathes of colour, try the final magnificent gavotte of the A Minor Suite, a Handelian theme and variations. It’s available as a free download on Hyperion’s website. Go listen to it. Now.