Mahan Esfahani's Bach recordings on Hyperion have been well received, with Stephen Greenbank admiring the Partitas, and Stuart Sillitoe giving a firm recommendation for the Toccatas. This is all repertoire that has been recorded hundreds of times before both on harpsichord and piano, with Angela Hewitt having an identical programme also on Hyperion. I still treasure his Rameau but this release is my first encounter with Esfahani's Bach and I was immediately impressed and have been enduringly satisfied by this CD.
First of all, there is the recording which is stunningly immediate, capturing every nuance of the instrument used, a very fine 2018 built harpsichord from Prague with a 16’ register. Harpsichord can be jangly and fatiguing to listen to, but this is one for which you will want to turn up the volume and revel in its sonorities. There is barely any mechanical noise, but I love that the recording unapologetically retains the thwanggg as the plectra are released at the end of the first movement of BWV971, and elsewhere of course.
Esfahani makes the most of this instrument's registers, and I would go as far as saying that this is a harpsichord recording for people who dislike harpsichords. To start with Esfahani's performances are full of expressive flexibility and arguably more the kind of playing you might expect from a pianistic interpreter, balancing that fine line between magnificent artistic inventiveness and distorting Bach's currently accepted idiom and to my ears easily falling on the right side of the argument. He appears to have shed himself from ‘historically informed’ delicacy and the formula of that Baroque machine that switches on, runs through and stops without much variation within a movement, and is also very good at giving the impression of there being a sustain pedal at his disposal. There are glorious contrasts all over the place, such as the final Presto of BWV971, which is taken at an exciting tempo and runs through an entire gamut of registers, pumping out every ounce of value from the rhythmic and harmonic drive of its 3:36 duration.
Stylistically there can be no mistaking the contrast between the drama of the ‘Italian Concerto’ and the floridly ornate ‘French Overture’, though Esfahani's ornaments are spiky rather than luxuriant. The dances in the latter certainly cover a lot of the floor in their animated vitality, and no-one is sitting back and relaxing at this particular party. Sustained almost to a fault, the beautiful Sarabande becomes a remarkable harpsichord ‘carillon’ in which time slows down, the following Gigue bringing us firmly back down to the dance floor.
Esfahani writes that the Duets BWV802-805 are largely ignored by harpsichordists despite their being part of the great Clavier-Übung III, though this may be explained by this collection's main focus being on the organ. Esfahani's reply to this is engaging the 16’ register straight away for the lower part of BWV802, and the whole collection is again given an impressive sheen through his playing, the academic feel of these pieces made as entertaining as you are ever likely to hear them. In this regard this set of four is perfectly placed in advance of the two Capriccios that close the recital. These are both early works that combine emotive subject matter, ‘on the departure of his beloved brother’, and derivation from and development on the earlier keyboard traditions of Frescobaldi, Froberger and others. The younger Bach flexes his keyboard and compositional technique to create some fascinating effects, the echos of di postiglione working nicely, and the final piece ‘in honorem Johann Christoph Bachii Ohrdrufiensis’ forming a lively fugal conclusion to a marvellous listening experience that is going straight into my collection of Bach favourites.