Paul Riley
BBC Music Magazine
September 2022

The latest instalment in Mahan Esfahani’s ‘ongoing series of the complete works of Bach’ (as the booklet has it) reaches Clavier-Übung II. Since for Esfahani any performance starts from a position where everything is freshly, indeed forensically reconsidered, Clavier-Übung II offers particularly rich pickings. Bach sets out not only to demonstrate how thoroughly he understands the flagship styles of Italy and France, but also how he can bend them to his own purposes. The interpretive possibilities are catnip to the harpsichordist who proves himself stylishly bilingual; and he follows through with the Vier Duette from Clavier-Übung III, and the two ‘fraternal’ capriccios—despatched with robust and playful affection.

The Italian Concerto is perhaps the most straightforward proposition, and if Esfahani allows himself rhapsodic licence in the way he shapes the Andante’s cantilena, (jaw-dropping rallentandos are applied halfway through the movement and at the end), the concluding Presto goes off like a rocket trailing scarcely-containable energy—the end thundering like Wanda Landowska on steroids. Crossing the musical border into France, the rhetoric at the start of the ‘Ouverture’ is seized with a gusto that sometimes threatens to spill over into caricature, but the answering section scintillates, its sheer lucidity spellbinding. And if Esfahani’s ‘Passepied I’ is a predictably bullish affair, ‘Passepied II’ is all playful thistledown; while the ‘Sarabande’ prompts an object lesson in how to embellish repeats with the utmost imagination. Altogether, a challenge to complacency that can’t be ignored.