Striking a harpsichord: Mahan Esfahani, ‘Musique?’

It’s impossible to resist writing about this tour-de-force of an album, a CD I’ve lived with now for a few weeks and keep feeling drawn back to, certain in the knowledge there’s always more to hear, more to appreciate.

I would be happy to recommend any of Mahan Esfahani’s recordings, but my true favourites are those where – instead of tackling a complete work or set of works – he has free reign to programme a disc with the same variety and elan he does his ‘mixed’ recitals.

You may already be aware that Esfahani is a fierce advocate for the harpsichord as a current, ‘living’ instrument. His live CD for Wigmore Hall’s in-house label gave us Ligeti alongside Bach and Byrd, and ‘Time Present and Time Past’ (2015) placed Górecki and Reich alongside Bach (JS and CPE), Geminiani and A Scarlatti. And the effect can be achieved without extreme timescale differences: for me, an absolute jewel in his catalogue is ‘The Passinge Mesures’ (2018): devoted to English composers working across the 16th and 17th centuries, Esfahani’s robust, audible enthusiasm and dizzying mixtape/compilation approach make the music as vibrant and immediate as if the ink was still drying on the manuscript paper.

In some ways, ‘Musique?’ is an opposite and sequel to ‘Mesures’. It once again narrows the timeframe, but here, all the works are modern – or at least, relatively so: everything is from the second half of the 20th century, apart from a new piece composed by Anahita Abbasi especially for Esfahani in 2018.

Everything about this feels like a passion project – and I mean that as a compliment. There’s no old reliable warhorse or obvious hit-parade banger in sight. Esfahani’s witty and thoughtful sleeve-notes, now a given that we perhaps take too much for granted, are now supplemented with the wry “No harpsichords were harmed in the making of this recording”. The gauntlet-throw of the title; the promise of liberal lashings of electronics through the album; even the punk-stencil font of the cover text: all these surface elements point towards Esfahani both honouring, and sending up, his so-called ‘enfant terrible’ status.

I can’t help but think that this is an almost perfect harpsichord album, achieving what I believe Esfahani is aiming for: proof, if it were needed, that the instrument is not stuck in the past. But more than that, it seems to give the harpsichord a ‘bridge’ role, a unifying versatility that joins music of the past and present – many of the tracks take inspiration from older work – and helps to make this imaginary dividing line we so often draw between ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary’ that little bit fainter.

(After all, the harpsichord has already played this role in rock music. A good deal of prog famously strives for classical complexity and adopts baroque flamboyance. But take a listen instead to the Kinks’ ‘Two Sisters’, Roxy Music’s ‘Triptych’ and, of course, the Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ and you hear bands desperate to forge ahead into the future – kitchen-sink storytelling, glam exhibitionism, confrontational punk – while trying to conjure up a flavour of the past, a wistful, churchified Englishness. Using the harpsichord – and a wider approach to instrumentation in general – inevitably brought this old-world atmosphere they sought while, perhaps ironically, making them more sophisticated and forward-thinking, ahead of their peers. The Roxy track in particular still sounds like aliens on some far-future spaceship trying to re-imagine our early music.)

‘Musique?’ primarily overcomes the potential challenge of a fully modern programme by being a thrilling listen from start to finish. That flair for programming is in full effect, as Esfahani guides us along a particular path, gradually introducing new elements into the mix until, by the end, we’re ready for the harpsichord to soundtrack the apocalypse.

Mahan Esfahani, in London (photo by Kaja Smith)

Opening the CD is Takemitsu’s ‘Rain dreaming’. An uncannily accurate example of a piece of music managing to embody its title, the drops and splashes made by the notes and chords remind the listener of all kinds of ‘water music’… but the space and patience in the piece – which is unafraid of silences to acclimatise the listener – also made me think of Brian Eno’s recollection of how he was inspired to make ambient music: recuperating after an accident, he was playing a record slightly too softly; too tired to get up and fix the volume, he lay there listening to the album blend in with the rain outside. These gaps in the sound also shine a light on the superb clarity of Hyperion’s recording (applause for producer Sébastien Chonion and engineer David Hinitt), where you can hear Esfahani’s contact with the keyboard, the occasional noises of moving parts. This doesn’t appeal to me just because I like the ‘live’ feel, of almost being there in the room; it also serves the piece, with its extra hints of pitter-patter, its own niche in the soundworld.

Henry Cowell’s ‘Set of four’ follows, written in 1960, and consisting of the US composer’s responses to four musical forms or styles: Rondo, Ostinato, Chorale and Fugue (plus Résumé). These works often feel minimalistic to me – not to imply they are ‘basic’ in any way – more that they follow through their central ideas remorselessly to an ultimate conclusion. The ‘starting’ forms for these pieces become submerged and then revived in turns in Cowell’s agitated, at times dissonant treatments. The middle pair are perhaps the most startling: the seemingly unstoppable Ostinato constantly undercuts itself as harmonic lines are set up only to be sabotaged by runs rising and falling beneath; while the Chorale fights to maintain its stateliness as skittish trills chip away at its edges.

So far, Esfahani has been gently guiding us through the labyrinth, with the thread still tied to the entrance door, showing us where we’ve come from. As Saariaho’s ‘Jardin secret II’ begins, it’s time for us to risk proper disorientation. The first work on the disc combining electronic sounds with the harpsichord, it toys with our expectations: using voice samples as well as found sounds, Saariaho often makes the electronics behave more ‘musically’ than the harpsichord, with Esfahani contributing stabbing chords and more siren-like trills against the increasingly agile and percussive samples. (Fans of the Art of Noise, the band who sampled human voices to similar ends at around the same time in the mid-80s, will feel quite at home here.) One senses – particularly towards the end – that the keyboard part is the explorer. As it seems to retreat on tiptoe, is it finally forced back out of the secret space, or consumed by the spirits within?

As the informative sleeve notes by John Fallas tell us, Gavin Bryars’ ‘After Handel’s Vesper‘ speculates on Handel – blind – composing an oratorio through improvisation and inspiration, allowing him to give us glimpses of that composer’s signature while surrounding it with illumination and underlining both of his own, and in the room he gives the player to embellish. Again, this is a brilliantly chosen work, with a foothold for listeners used to the more traditional harpsichord repertoire, but through its changes in direction, apparent pauses for thought and dynamic shifts, determinedly headed somewhere new. (Try the exhilarating passage from around 6:00 where the pattern of chords builds and builds before falling back into delicacy at around 7:30.)

The centrepiece of the CD, Abbasi’s ‘Intertwined distances’ brings back the electronics, lending creeping atmosphere to the soundscape. However, this feels like the ‘You’ve come this far; here’s what a harpsichord can really do’ track. Esfahani ignites scary clusters of notes, for example, between the two and four-minute mark, at first intermittent, then a sustained onslaught, first low then high. I’ve never heard such clever use of the harpsichord’s ability to sound like a monumental depth charge in the lower registers, while dancing on air high up. By the time you reach nine or ten minutes, you might well be a little concerned for the instrument’s safety, gratefully remembering the mischievous reassurance in the CD booklet. It’s never unmusical – but it is violent, and unpredictable: suitably uncompromising for an artist like Esfahani, and drawing out the potential power, even aggression, in the machinery, at times the harpsichord itself seems to be making the decisions, aiming to banish any association with wigs and genteel dance moves forever.

The final, epic piece by Ferrari, is a more enigmatic marriage of keyboard and electronics. ‘Programme commun (“Musique socialiste?”)’ has a political background that seems to evoke the difficulty of change against an implacable status quo. Accordingly, the harpsichord part sounds impossibly demanding over the track’s sustained running time, constantly on the move, shifting between lightning cascades of notes and pounding chords, while the electronic element is simply a subtly shifting pulse, both anchoring the harpsichord – which sounds like it might spiral out of control at any moment – while remaining unaffected by its myriad assaults. While this piece’s long fade might seem a strangely downbeat close to an album of such brio – why not swap it with the Abbasi? – it is in fact this work that places Esfahani’s instrument, as the only possible vehicle for the effects it demands, at the centre of a truly contemporary political art statement. Mission accomplished.


‘Musique?’ is available from Hyperion Records here:

It’s also worth mentioning that, until the end of August 2020, ‘The Passinge Mesures’ is in the Hyperion sale:

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