The Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has been the focus of some interest for several years now. I became acquainted with his work through two exceptionally fine albums: Bach's Goldberg Variations, issued on DG, and Rameau's Pièces de Clavecin recorded for Hyperion, the latter favourably reviewed by my colleague Dominy Clements. Esfahani's recordings have garnered many favourable accolades and awards, so I am pleased to be given the opportunity to review his latest offering, again on Hyperion.
In the well-written and informative annotations, by Esfahani himself, he discusses in detail his choice of instruments for this recording. He opted for modern copies—which he refers to as ‘inauthentic methods’—to facilitate an ‘authentic experience’ for the listener. They are instruments he ‘likes the sound of’. The harpsichord is a two-manual copy after Fleisher of Hamburg, chosen for its range of colour ‘which evokes the sort of sound world of vocal and instrumental music of the period …’. In addition, four of the nineteen tracks are played on a 1989 virginals built by Huw Saunders, a copy of a 1642 Thomas White instrument.
Esfahani offers an interesting programme of diverse works by a variety of composers. The fifteen tracks on the Fleisher harpsichord copy explore music with great potential in terms of dramatic quality, colour and expressive range. The album gets its title from William Byrd's The nynth pavian and galliarde, the Passinge mesures - Book 2. At ten minutes, it is the most substantial work on the disc. 'Passing measures' was the English name for an Italian dance based on the passamezzo antico. Byrd's pavan-and-galliard pair is ingeniously constructed, with magical passing dissonances. Esfahani treats the ornamentation not merely as decoration, but miraculously weaves it into the music's line. The effect is spellbinding.
The programme also provides plenty of pleasing contrast. Tomkins's Barafostus Dreame, a suitable opener, is stately and imposing; the flourishes provide a grand entrance. Gibbons's Pavin, on the other hand, is dreamy and reflective, and radiates inward warmth. Then there is the rhythmic bustle of of Farnaby's Nobodyes Gigge, an intriguing title.
My ears pricked up when I heard track 12, The Scottish gigg, the first of the four virginals tracks. Its rich bright tone ideally suits the good-natured character of this cheery dance. I love the clean and sharp delineation the instrument delivers. Farnaby's Tell mee, Daphne has a courtly charm, and clarity and definition secure favourable results in Variations on the Romanesca.
I always find the Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouthshire a warm, sympathetic and pleasing acoustic. It truly lives up to its reputation here. It confers just the right amount of resonance. This is an attractive disc, offering satisfying variety. It wins my whole-hearted recommendation.