Mahan Esfahani, whose new album, “Bach: The Six Partitas”, has just been released on Hyperion, wants to bring the harpsichord back into the classical mainstream, where its position was usurped two centuries ago by the piano. He tried to transform his archaic image in different ways, commissioning works from living composers and combining old and new music in performances, as he did with excellent effect on “Time Present and Time Past”, his 2015 album with the baroque ensemble Concerto Köln for Archiv Production.
Unfortunately, a mixed program at the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016 produced unexpected results: while Mr. Esfahani performed Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase”, one of the early classics of minimalism based on a short, endlessly repeated motif. out of sync with a prerecorded version. of himself, part of the audience erupted into boos and cries. Finally, the concert was interrupted. Who would have thought that a harpsichordist could cause such an uproar?
But this Iranian-American musician is no stranger to the controversy. On his recent albums, Mr. Esfahani has played a specially constructed harpsichord. According to the liner notes, it was inspired by the “theories and surviving examples” of a 17th century builder from whom Bach commissioned an instrument. It has lower and more powerful bass than usual, thanks to an additional soundboard made of carbon fiber composite (red alert for purists) rather than wood. This increases the projection of the instrument in modern concert halls and adds to its sonic palette. Obviously, Mr. Esfahani does not slavishly follow the beliefs of historical performance practice.
Bach’s six keyboard partitas are essentially suites of eighteenth-century dance forms with distinctive rhythms, each preceded by an introduction. Mr. Esfahani renders them with an overloaded technical flair and point of view. In the opening Toccata of Partita six, his tempo is slower than most, but the momentum never falters and his playing is expressive. His jubilant interpretation of Partita’s Capriccio captures the manic quality of many of Bach’s most virtuoso writings. The harpsichordist’s interpretation of the third partita grows stronger: touching and melancholy in the German, majestic in the Sarabande and vibrant in the Burlesca, where imaginative recording choices for certain chords accentuate the casual and humorous character of the section. .
Its most serious flaw is a tendency to play faster passages at breakneck speeds, undermining dance rhythms and melodic lines. An example is the Giga conclusion of the popular first partita. In contrast, old music veteran Ton Koopman’s tempo in the same movement on his album for Challenge Classics is fast but serves the music better.
Whether Mr. Esfahani will expand audiences for the harpsichord remains to be seen, but he invariably proves stimulating.
Bach, notably prolific, wrote about 1,100 works. At the opposite end of the creative spectrum was Maurice Duruflé, whose compositional output totals only 15 pieces plus various transcriptions and rearrangements. Very self-critical, he frequently revised his scores or destroyed them. Although Duruflé is best known for his “Requiem” and “Three Dances” for orchestra, the composer’s organ works have been increasingly promoted in recent decades. The latest entry is an album by famous British organist Thomas Trotter, “Duruflé: Complete Organ Works”, which will be released on June 11 on the King’s College Cambridge label.
Duruflé (1902-1986) became a leading organ virtuoso in his native France and abroad, holding positions in two important Parisian cathedrals. As a composer he was musically curator and frequently drew on the works of others. His seven published organ works, written between 1926 and 1964, typically reflect a love of Gregorian chant and the impressionist influences of Debussy and Ravel. Where the solo organ music of Bach (1685-1750) is distinguished by its contrapuntal complexity, that of Duruflé is often marked by a simple lyricism.
“Scherzo” and “Meditation” are not particularly memorable, but other works show the full extent of Duruflé’s art. Among them is the “Prelude, Adagio and Choral Variations on the theme of“ Veni Creator ”” (excerpt from the Pentecost hymn “Come Holy Spirit”). Mr. Trotter, a staple of the British music scene performing in major European concert halls, gives the impression of overlapping waves in the dreamy, impressionistic prelude. In the tranquil adagio, which can meander through other hands, he develops a sense of subtle anticipation until the end, when the gift of the Holy Ghost is represented in a brief explosion of rippling figurations and grandeur of agreement. Choral variations have an appropriate sense of reverence and ultimately triumph.
M. Trotter also shines in Duruflé’s impressive “Suite” in three movements. Symphonic in nature, it evokes a journey from another world, particularly in the opening prelude, whose low, growling sounds of the pedals introduce the strange music that follows. In the jerky final Toccata, the organist unleashes abundant virtuosity.
Although the freshly restored 4,388-pipe Harrison & Harrison instrument from the King’s College Chapel is clear and with great firepower, it lacks the colouristic richness, for example, of the Franco-Romantic Cavaillé-Coll of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, heard on Henry Fairs rightly praised Duruflé’s 2007 album for Naxos. This is a minor drawback to an otherwise convincing recording.
-Mrs. Jepson reviews classic albums and concerts for the Journal.
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