Ivan Hewett
The Telegraph
September 2022

JS Bach may the great fons et origo of Western art music, but quite a few people are simply allergic to his music. This is understandable. In a bad performance his fugues can seem dry and pedantic, and those perpetual-motion dances can simply churn away like some infernal musical knitting-machine. If the sufferer also has an allergy to the sound of the harpsichord—again, not uncommon—then this new album of two hefty masterworks, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture, plus the four rarely heard Duets and two very early pieces might seem the most exquisite torture.

But if they try it, I’d be willing to bet it would bring them joy, as the performer is Mahan Esfahani, the Iranian-born, American-raised and now Czech-domiciled harpsichordist. Esfahani won a string of awards in his youth, including a BBC New Generation artist and Borletti-Buitoni Award. He is as passionate about contemporary harpsichord music as he is about the great pre-classical composers from Frescobaldi to CPE Bach, the familiar territory for harpsichordists from which only a few adventurous players stray.

Esfahani’s performances of Bach are dramatic and highly coloured in a way which often subverts the ideology of 'period performance', which in recent decades has been the guiding light of most harpsichordists. That ideology says: study the sources, play on exact replicas of old instruments, and above all strive to catch older styles of playing, in an effort to give listeners 'what the composer wanted'. Esfahani is far too smart to be taken in by this idea, which is impossible in practice as well as being dubious in principle. He never forgets he is playing for 21st-century audiences, not a bunch of 18th-century aristocrats in an ancien régime palace. At the same time he is fascinated by old styles and old sources, and really wants to be true to the composer—in his own way.

The result is something poised tantalisingly between ‘then' and ‘now'. Many of the pieces are in dance form, but Esfahani doesn’t piously recreate the rhythm of the dance; instead he pulls the rhythms around in a way that reminds you of a great pianist moulding a Chopin waltz. Those knitting-machine fast movements are intelligently marked out by pauses, so you become aware of the grand harmonic changes beneath the incessant patter of notes. The music jumps into vivid relief, an effect magnified hugely by the prismatic variety of rich, jangling colours Esfahani conjures from his custom-made harpsichord. In the performance of Bach’s very early Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother Esfahani adds laugh-out-loud wit and imaginative recreation to the mix. In all, these performances are a marvel. Never has Bach seemed less dry and more full of fantasy.

The Telegraph