If the first volume of Mahan Esfahani’s foray into Bach’s keyboard music showcased the youthful flamboyance of the Toccatas, the sequel embraces a composer pushing at the boundaries of the suite, upscaling its possibilities through an encyclopaedic assault buttressed by assorted national styles, compositional techniques old and new and an array of ‘Galantieren’ ranging from Rondeau and Capriccio to Burlesca and Scherzo. All keyboard life is there, and they raise plenty of issues for a performer. Esfahani is keen to tackle them head on, and his liner notes make for required reading as a starting point—otherwise you might wonder why the usually Frenchified opening of the C minor Partita has been interpreted in the style of one of CPE Bach’s improvisatory fantasias, or what’s going on in the E minor’s Gigue whose brow-furrowing quirkiness is unpacked with an urgency and ferocity that lines it up as a precursor to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge!
It’s not, incidentally, that Esfahani doesn’t ‘get’ the French Ouverture. He crafts the most dapper specimen imaginable for the D major Partita’s curtain-up. And if there’s some delicious rhythmic playfulness at work in the ‘Menuet’, the swagger of the ‘Aria’ is slightly dissipated in a whimsically fey final gesture. Trevor Pinnock (on Hänssler) or Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi) offer less idiosyncratic readings, but then Esfahani has never been one to play it safe. BWV 825’s ‘Menuet 1’ has the solidity of a bürgermeister mindful of his respectability, but its da capo positively boogies, darting embellishments doing the not-so-heavy lifting. A set not for everyone perhaps; but at its pungent best, Esfahani’s joie de vivre can be uniquely captivating.