Mr Esfahani is an all-too-rare presence in the harpsichord world. First, he is erudite and indefatigable in his study of the context surrounding the music he plays. (His far-reaching liner notes excite me as much as his performance.) Second, he has amazing technique, amply illustrated by many tracks on this recording, including the notoriously fiendish Barafostus Dreame of Tomkins. And finally, he never allows the often doctrinaire world of historically-informed performance to interfere with his musical instincts and his search for a truly expressive solution to every phrase he plays.
This program is an ideal introduction to the world of the English virginalists but also the kind of compilation that would thoroughly please the most seasoned aficionado. In addition to the Tomkins, it includes Byrd’s ninth pavan and galliard from My Ladye Nevilles Booke, the pavan ‘M. Orlando Gibbons’ and his Woods So Wild, five works by Farnaby (Fantasia, Nobodyes Gigge, Wooddy-Cock, Tell Mee, Daphne, Why Aske You), two other fantasias (Bull’s ‘Mr Dr Bull’ and the Byrd Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La), the less-played Leaves Bee Greene by Inglot, a Tomkins pavan, and two smaller, anonymous works (‘The Scottish Gigg’ and Variations on the Romanesca). He plays two instruments—one by Robert Goble & Son (1990) based on a Hamburg doublemanual harpsichord, and a 1989 virginal modeled on one made in 1642.
Each performance is as close to perfection as I can imagine, so I will concentrate on just a few. The Byrd hexachord fantasia takes what is usually a very dutiful contrapuntal exercise and turns it into a small, perfect world containing a shifting procession of the most varied emotions. The pavans, while played with virtuosic panache, also respond well to the intimate, somewhat wistful expression that these works always require. And even in a kind of throwaway work like the Scottish Gigg, he balances the simple pleasures of such music with an intelligent and utterly persuasive sense of its overall shape. Here, as elsewhere, he accomplishes these miracles with the traditional gifts of any great musician, historical, mainstream, or legendary—a variety of touch, a surprising but always musical sense of phrasing and timing, and boundless technical mastery.