A hundred and fifty years ago the harpsichord seemed about to join the dodo, the allosaurus and the rest as another extinct species. The new improved piano had taken over, together with barnstorming musicians such as Liszt. Who wanted little tinkly sounds any more?
The first signs of rebirth came with Arnold Dolmetsch recreating old instruments in the 1890s. New players eventually arrived; some new harpsichord music too. But all revivals can still benefit from rejuvenation, and that’s what Mahan Esfahani provides. Listening to this Iranian-American wheeling at speed through 16th- and 17th-century English delights is as exhilarating a musical experience as I know.
He makes his double manual harpsichord—a modern version of a 1710 original—sound as resourceful as an orchestra. It’s richly textured, bubbling with colours, able to whisper and shout as well as most stages in between. As for virtuoso flair, even Liszt would doff the cap at Esfahani’s furious arpeggios and decorative flourishes, fingers flying at the speed of light.
Such enriching repertoire too. The Passinge Mesures takes its title from a Byrd pavan and galliard—ancient dance forms bustled into dizzying, sometimes dissonant new shapes. Other pieces, especially by Farnaby, build complex, compelling, emotional fantasies out of simple popular songs and dances, creating in music something akin to what Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets achieved with words. Two thirds of the way through, a quieter, smaller instrument arrives, the virginals, with equally enlivening results. I suspect that Esfahani would make magic even if playing a penny whistle. This is definitely one of my albums of the year.