William Yeoman
Limelight, Australia
June 2021

In harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s typically erudite and entertaining booklet note, he asks us to consider Bach’s six Partitas BWV825-830, which form the first part of the composer’s Clavier Übung, as 'provocations fundamentally disturbing and deconstructing the High Baroque forms which they purport to exemplify'.

To be fair, he’s making a specific point which is less clear when the passage is taken out of context. But it remains a clearly provocative statement in itself, and an interesting starting point for an interpretation.

I enjoyed Esfahani’s take on Bach’s toccatas, reviewed here, but not everyone did. I suspect his partitas will likewise divide critics. The Iranian-American harpsichordist’s project strikes me as one in which contingency is an acceptable and indeed essential element in the search for perfection. A pronounced intellectual curiosity coupled with a heightened aesthetic sensitivity can only result in bold hypotheses about the realisation of the music of the past.

So, while I like Colin Tilney’s expressiveness, Trevor Pinnock’s forthrightness, Robert Wooley’s sense of architecture, Pascal Dubreuil’s élan and Masaaki Suzuki’s grace in this repertoire, I love Esfahani’s rigor and clarity, which have their own pleasures. The pianist Charles Rosen—also an incomparable writer—comes to mind.

As Esfahani—who again plays a sonorous Jukka Ollikka harpsichord (finished 2018) after Michael Mietke—points out, 'The first part of the Clavier Übung—the six partitas—makes its mark with a comprehensive overview of every style available to Bach, from the archaic to the modern, and from abstract musical thought to the dances of the street and the theatre.'

This sounds like some of Bach’s other capacious compendia, such as The Art of Fugue or the '48', in which the artistic, the exploratory, the imitative, the rhetorical, the commercial, the spiritual and the pedagogical combine almost to form a social history in musical microcosm. In other words, there’s already enough going on in this music. No point in gilding the lily.

Not that Esfahani’s playing is ever dull or thoughtlessly mechanical. For an example of a mindful variety of mechanical, listen to his rapid-fire take on the first partita’s Gigue—a good reference point for the swifter, toccata-like Allemande earlier in the suite. The opening Sinfonia of the Partita No 2 in C Minor is glorious, the spacious, spread chord of the first bar establishing a dramatic tension which underpins the subsequent faster sections of the movement.

Well-dramatised, too, are relationships among movements, such as those among the flowing Fantasia, the busy Corrente, the transparent Sarabande, the bustling Burlesca and the exciting Gigue in the Partita No 3 in E Minor. Which sets up the sunny, tirade-streaked Ouverture in the following Partita No 4 in D just nicely. And its bittersweet cousin, the Sarabande in the same suite.

Some of the best playing here can be found in Esfahani’s improvisatory and beautifully characterised account of the fifth Partita’s Praeambulum—which again points ahead to the sixth Partita’s opening Toccata, as thrilling an account as you’re likely to hear anywhere.

Limelight, Australia