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Cambridge Music Festival review: Mahan Esfahani plays Bach

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Anyone who was present is unlikely to forget Mahan Esfahani’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the Cambridge Summer Music Festival two years ago. Iranian-born Esfahani, who has set out to promote the harpsichord to what he believes is its rightful place among concert instruments, is a prodigy of the keyboard whose astonishing abilities, demonstrated on that occasion, were once again on display at the current Cambridge Music Festival. Of worldwide renown he is one of the greatest performers on the harpsichord, and indeed one of the outstanding living instrumentalists.

Although Wednesday evening’s recital was advertised as ‘Mahan Esfahani plays Bach’, the programme also included works by C. P. E. Bach, and J.S. Bach’s immediate predecessor as Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the infrequently heard Johann Kuhnau. The whole, and to a layman well-nigh impossibly demanding repertoire, presented Esfahani with not the slightest of difficulties. The audience was simply left agog at this genius of the instrument.

Maham Esfahani at Cambridge Music Festival, Picture Kaja Smith (52524135)
Maham Esfahani at Cambridge Music Festival, Picture Kaja Smith (52524135)

From the delicacy of touch he achieved in the C. P. E. Bach Sonata in G minor, and the exquisite Kuhnau sonata (No.6 in B flat major), to the power which made the modest-looking harpsichord sound sometimes like an organ, sometimes even an entire orchestra, Esfahani gave the lie to the received opinion that the piano makes possible tones and colours forever denied to a harpsichord whose strings, being plucked, allow no room for subtlety of interpretation.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 903), one of J.S.Bach’s most famous works, may have been played equally as well, but is unlikely ever to have been played better than in Esfahani’s performance, where his diamond precision and his amazing technique seemed to find new meanings and dimensions in the approach that he took to this imaginative toccata and its well-balanced fugue.

Musician Mahan Esfahani. Picture: Kaja Smith (52524141)
Musician Mahan Esfahani. Picture: Kaja Smith (52524141)

Esfahani’s sense of timing here, and elsewhere, was perhaps no more obviously a prominent gift of his playing than that displayed in the concluding French Overture (BWV 831) with its array of dance measures derived from the elegant style of French masters such as Lully and Couperin, great influences on the German tradition. Esfahani’s rhythmic vitality, his precision and confidence all coalesced to deliver an almost perfect rendition of this most challenging of Bach’s keyboard compositions.

A ‘speechless’ audience, though loudly vocal in its calls for more and more, brought Esfahani back to encore with, as he said, ‘a work by Henry Purcell’. This was no towering virtuosic reprise, simply an undemonstrative, brief but exquisitely executed, lyrical piece from an extraordinarily accomplished musician. An occasion where there is nothing to fault can only be enjoyed. And this was one of those occasions.


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