It’s refreshing to see Hyperion making one of their very occasional forays into what some listeners may regard as the darker underbelly of contemporary music. In the label’s early days, they made a pioneering (and stlll viscerally compelling) recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s vocal masterpiece Stimmung with Gregory Rose’s group Singcircle (CDA 66115). A decade or so later I remember feeling shocked to the core (and rather delighted) to find the by then familiar Hyperion logo at the base of a Xenakis disc (choral works with the New London Chamber Choir and James Wood: CDA 66980) and seeing the name of Luc Ferrari on the back cover of this disc strikes me as equally thrilling. Of course I am not suggesting for one moment that the label broadly ignores new music—their advocacy of figures such as McCabe, Maxwell Davies, MacMillan (to focus just on ‘M’) and an entire generation of contemporary choral composers both from the UK and further afield is unstinting, whilst Messrs Hamelin and Osborne have both dipped their toes into the twilit netherworld of Morton Feldman, but confrontational Darmstadt/IRCAM/electroacoustic type fare is a real rarity and for me at least a great treat.
It goes without saying that the presence of Mahan Esfahani on their roster has much to do with this issue—he is after all the doyen of harpsichord provocateurs and his questing spirit is once again curtly described in his typically bracing, amusing booklet note. He has adapted the name of the Ferrari work as the disc’s overarching title, and although in reality all of this music is certainly approachable and interesting, not all of it could be described as ‘beautiful’ in the conventional sense. Some of the Hyperion marketing bumf I saw in relation to the disc contained the comforting reassurance that ‘no harpsichords were harmed in the making of this album’.
In the case of the first four pieces here, there is nothing really that should terrify any open-minded listener. It is difficult to imagine that Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming could have been composed by anybody else; its fastidious yet delicate patterning becomes seems more attractive and liquid as the piece proceeds, though in Esfahani’s hands limpid is not an epithet that comes to mind. He finds an unexpectedly apt virility in the music that might give those familiar with Takemitsu a bit of a jolt. The same could be said of his account of Kaija Saariaho’s electronically enhanced Jardin Secret II. Here the rhythmic features of the electroacoustic content are evidently tied to Esfahani’s live playing. The strange aspirate pulses (derived from the composer’s own breathing) ensure the work projects a corporeal weirdness, though some of the beats that emerge also render it is impossible for me not to be reminded of the antediluvian rolling stock that to this day stumble along the decrepit railway lines that connect the counties of the Red Rose and the White Rose. Jardin Secret II is neatly characterised in John Fallas’ helpful booklet note as ‘a mysteriously impelled dance of touch and breath’. Esfahani convincingly blends the requisite aggression and delicacy demanded by the solo part. The Hyperion recording places the harpsichord more front and centre than Finlandia’s for Jukka Tiensuu (his fine contemporary recital, ‘The Fantastic Harpsichord’ can be found on FACD 357).
I was completely unfamiliar with each of the two other solo harpsichord works on this disc. Both are fascinating. Esfahani offers a muscular account of Henry Cowell’s tetralogy Set of Four, whose movements each owe something to old forms and composers. The first is a substantial and agreeable Rondo, in which florid, expansive neo-Scarlattian spread chords are connected by long threads of bare yet ornate melody. The two central pieces are briefer. The Ostinato’s sequences of repeated motifs are rapidly despatched, its baroque patternings simultaneously familiar and fresh. The Chorale is built upon the massive arpeggiated chords at its outset, a distant cousin of the central movement of Falla’s Concerto, albeit with that work’s Iberianisms surgically removed. The final movement is described as a Fugue - Résumé and incorporates an ingenious structure which effortlessly synthesises the essences of the first three pieces.
Gavin Bryars’ After Handel’s ‘Vesper’ has nothing to do with Handel; it takes its name from a fictionalised episode in a Raymond Rousseau novel which is too convoluted and surreal to describe here. In any case Bryars has admitted that its somewhat improvisational character shares its DNA with the music of Girolamo Frescobaldi. Its substance is drawn from the elegant, stately chords at its outset—of all the works on the disc I suspect this is the piece which will most conform to what many listeners will expect from ‘harpsichord music’. It’s also the piece which arguably draws the most conventionally ‘interpretive’ playing from Esfahani, who moulds its colours and textures convincingly, and determines its pace and weight. Like all of Bryars’ best work After Handel’s ‘Vesper’ is elusive and strange, its mysterious hold on the listener tightening as it proceeds.
By now Esfahani has perhaps softened us up; he sensibly leaves the two most confrontational works to the end. Like him, Anahita Abbasi was born in Iran although she now lives in San Diego. It’s the first time I’ve encountered her work and I am most impressed. The title Intertwined Distances epitomises her approach to music and her attempts to synthesise direct opposites. In this piece Abbasi seems to have intuitively anticipated the current restrictions in our socially distanced world. The electroacoustic element swiftly materialises at its outset, colouring and contextualising the live harpsichord. Intertwined Distances is a commentary upon the journey of sound, between player and audience, between different sound sources, and an attempt to integrate and unify these elements. Low acoustic subterranean rumbles provide an ambient backcloth which is both intimate and infinite. At times both Esfahani’s playing and the electronics create a brouhaha which approaches noise although it never really crosses that line. To my ears it is thorny and mildly discomfiting but the electroacoustic halo frequently seems beautiful and eerie, evoking by turn the sounds of bells, traffic, great gothic spaces, or distant ships and aeroplanes. There are periods when the harpsichord seems to completely duck out of the action. Roughly halfway through during a period of palpable stasis, a massive tsunami of harpsichord sonority arises and builds—huge, disconcerting cluster chords and chambers of sound where one does actually fear for the instrument. The Hyperion engineers capture the lot in thrilling detail. There is a convincing fluency to Intertwined Distances—at its conclusion the physical mechanisms of the harpsichord, their tones muted or muffled are all that remain, a reassurance of the real need for a human contribution. Abbasi’s piece is timely, relevant, and intermittently moving.
And I was expecting Luc Ferrari’s gaily titled Programme commun «Musique socialiste?» to sound far more of its time than it did. This is a terrific work, a kind of concerto for harpsichord and tape which emerges in a perfectly discernible arch form. The spare doodlings with which it staggers into life evolve into trills and repeated notes. Pungent, sharp silences demarcate them. One awakens to the presence of a drone after a couple of minutes, a kind of echo chamber as Esfahini’s playing gathers its urgency and purpose. The synthetic backdrop broadens into weird, regular pulsings which provide a rhythmic context against or within which the player proceeds. The work certainly rocks and moves more than I was anticipating. If one can settle on its concerto-like arc, the solo part gets more percussive and aggressive as it goes on—seemingly Programme commun—justifies itself as an exercise in catharsis as much as virtuosity for Esfahani. Either way, it’s a win-win experience for the likes of me—the deafening clusters that recur more and more take on the character of a Sorbonne riot replete with Molotov cocktails and machine guns. The synthetic pulsings at about 10 mins assume an even more threatening gait, however. Melodic kernels recur and even become familiar, underlining the remarkable and unexpected elegance of this music. The pulsings gradually morph into cicadas, whilst wisps of melody and harpsichord texture remain. As the authorities (The Police? The Military? Trump’s Feds?) clear the streets, the piece’s initial quietude is restored. Cicadas chirrup and the inevitable rain lashes down. Or not. Read it as you will.
Whatever Ferrari’s socio-political subtext was, or Esfahani’s motivation in including the piece here, Programme commun «Musique socialiste?» is taut and exhilarating—and it’s the highlight of a provocative but timely disc whose appeal seems broader than one might expect—as I write it’s number 12 in the official Classical Charts! It represents a bold and smart move by Hyperion, a massive leap of faith in their harpsichord superstar. He doesn’t disappoint.