Jed Distler
Classics Today
September 2020

Put simply, I’ve rarely encountered such a wide ranging, provocative, intelligently curated, effectively paced, and brilliantly performed program of contemporary harpsichord music. Mahan Esfahani begins the journey, so to speak, with Toru Takemitsu’s Rain dreaming. The gently unfolding lines help to establish the sound of the instrument and the ambient resonance as a point of reference. Henry Cowell’s Set of four introduces additional textures into the mix: the Rondo’s short stabbing chords, the Ostinato’s busy and rhapsodic rapid lines, the Chorale’s sustained rolled chords, and the fugal finale’s contrapuntal activity.

Saariaho’s Jardin secret II begins with an audaciously long trill that eventually gives way to its electronic manifestation. The harpsichord/electronics interplay ranges from disarmingly conversational to darkly combative, yet the sonorities never clog or clutter. Esfahani clearly revels in the Bryars work’s quasi-improvisatory virtuosity and harmonic invention. To my ears, the music seems less a modern take on Handel than a 21st-century updating of Frescobaldi’s freewheeling toccatas.

Abbasi’s Intertwined Distances presents a dense, dark, and rather cinematic soundscape, replete with high-octane cluster sequences and pellets of passagework that remind me of the late Cecil Taylor’s kinetic piano improvisations. However, the Luc Ferrari composition’s narrative flow proves more intense and purposeful. In the work’s opening section, harsh chords emerge as reiterated signposts in contrast to darting phrases that run rampant. These signposts later merge into a persistent, throbbing ostinato, eliciting both playful and combative behavior on the harpsichordist’s part.

While I understand and somewhat sympathize with the defensive tone of Esfahani’s written program statements, his formidable musicianship, artistry, and commitment speak louder than words throughout this remarkable tour-de-force of a recital.

Classics Today