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Fanfare Magazine (UK)

March 14, 2015

Ronald E. Grames

Interview with Mahan Esfahani on Corelli in Fanfare
Mahan Esfahani on Arcangelo Corelli and Getting the Harpsichord into the Mainstream.
He has been hailed as the leading harpsichordist of his generation, with a portfolio of awards to confirm it, and she is undoubtedly the leading recorder player of hers, with decades of acclaim to support her title. It is, as critic and provocateur Norman Lebrecht has stated, “a dream team.” Yet, when one looks at it logistically, it seems an unlikely partnership. Mahan Esfahani was born in 1984 in Iran, and after studies in the U.S., Italy, and the Czech Republic, has settled, if that is the right word, in the UK. Michala Petri had a major recording contract before Esfahani was born. She is Danish, and while centering her operations in her homeland, she is nearly as peripatetic. To top it all, their first joint recital was in Cyprus, the brainchild of the Pharos Arts Foundation in Nicosia. And yet, on reflection, perhaps it was inevitable, as the combination is so obviously incandescent that if Garo Keheyan and Yvonne Georgiadou—dedicatees of this release—hadn’t arranged that meeting at their chamber music festival in May 2012, someone else would have had to. One is inclined to offer the obvious cliché that it is, indeed, a small world, and be thankful for it.
In any case, Esfahani was not inclined to talk about how the meeting or recording came about. On a whirlwind round of engagements during the time in which we were to work on this article, it was actually impossible for him to commit to a series of emails, so I sent a list of other questions for him to consider about his life, work, and about Corelli and his sonatas. I started with another apparent unlikelihood for a kid from Tehran:
How did you become interested in the harpsichord and in early music in general?
My father plays the piano and I guess it was a form of rebellion, really. I fell in love with the harpsichord because I heard it on the radio, and I’ve never fallen out of love since then. I would say that the term early music is something I find foreign to me. If it’s earlier repertoire: great. If it’s something written yesterday: also great. I also like to listen to a lot of Chopin and Elgar and Schoenberg and all sorts of things. I just got a disc of the Vagn Holmboe chamber symphonies recorded by Storgårds and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra on Dacapo. I can’t stop listening to it. I went to hear the new opera by John Adams, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, at the English National Opera. I was so moved that I’m buying another ticket! But to me, someone like William Byrd or Orlando Gibbons are just as new, because the general public don’t know much about them. So it’s my job to take that to everyone’s ears. New Music can mean lots of things.
Your program book bio suggests that your interests go beyond early music, and that you wish to take the harpsichord into “mainstream halls and series.” This makes me think of Francis Poulenc, of course, Manuel de Falla, György Ligeti (nice Continuum on your Wigmore recital disc), and Philip Glass. Is there a larger body of modern concert works for the harpsichord, or is this part of what you are working on? Or is it all of the harpsichord’s repertoire for which you wish to develop a larger audience?
Yes, and I’m glad you’ve asked this! I wish more people would touch upon this subject. There is certainly a large body of works; right now, on my harpsichord, there are scores by Maurice Ohana, Bohuslav Martinů, Hans Werner Henze, and Krzysztof Penderecki waiting to be studied. On my computer, there are a couple of emails from young composers that I need to answer. The same Daniel Kidane whose new work for recorder and harpsichord we’ve just put on disc [for February release—see below] has written me six études which I’ll be premiering at the chamber hall [Milton Court] of the Barbican in April of 2015. I am just beginning to work very hard, with some fruitful results, on enlarging the repertoire. It will take a while. Hopefully audiences will understand that the harpsichord will do anything.
I have to say that my first impression of hearing you play was that you invest the music with much more personality than many of your predecessors did. Certainly, you aren’t an objectivist in the old Germanic Karl Richter/Gustav Leonhardt mold. Does this suggest a certain dissatisfaction with the general state of performance style on the harpsichord? You mention in your notes that “the rolling of a few discreet chords is a modern invention.” Certainly, no one would accuse you of that, but in what ways do you see your style differing?
I couldn’t possibly comment on any performance styles. To me, this music engages the performer as more than a simple servant of the composer: which, again, is a modern invention. It engages a performer as a co-creator, in a sense; of course, I’m never going to be on the level of the composer, but an objective approach has no basis in history. That’s my view, at least. It, too, will become dated, perhaps! I suppose objectivity is a very convenient thing. One can assume its mantle, avoid any artistic criticism whatsoever, and then upon death, be praised for faithfulness to the composer by moralistic colleagues. That must be awfully nice.
You have studied with some remarkable artists and scholars. Would you care to comment on the influence of George Houle, Peter Watchorn, Lorenzo Ghielmi, and Zuzana Růžičková?
George Houle taught me to always question and to never give up searching for something better than what I could do. Peter Watchorn gave me the technical tools and the musical apparatus and philosophy that would teach me to find my own voice someday. He also taught me about being generous as a musician. Lorenzo Ghielmi taught me to trust the music first and to work very hard. Zuzana Růžičková taught me how to live my life as a musician, how to be obsessed with my work, and how to go the extra mile to find solutions to my musical problems.
I have read that you do a lot of your own editions of the early music that you perform. What sort of approach are you taking that may differ from the existing editions?
Well, to be honest, it’s just quite fun and exhilarating even to engage with period sources and work with the notation of the composer and his or her contemporaries. It sheds new light on the relationship between something written and something sounded.
If the harpsichord is to enter a mainstream that includes larger audiences, audibility becomes an issue. How do you feel about the amplification of your instrument to accommodate larger spaces?
Does it become an issue? I’m not aware of that so far in my performing career, but musical conservatives repeatedly tell me otherwise. They must know better than I do, I guess. Amplification is fine if done with sophistication and an understanding of the instrument’s properties.
I was intrigued by your description, in your program notes, of Arcangelo Corelli as “the first world-famous composer.” What is there about his music that made him a phenomenon in his own time, and what attracted you to it, especially this second part of opus 5?
Well, Corelli was amongst the first—and I’m generalizing here—really to codify the ideas of tension and release as represented in tonic and dominant harmonic relationships. That must have been both shocking and refreshing to listeners who were not necessarily musical connoisseurs. I think his music coincided perfectly with the dawn of an age that saw music being published and consumed by the ever-growing middle classes of 18th-century Europe. It can be played by an able amateur, but it also has room for rather profound explorations in the hands of virtuosi. It’s so protean, I am still awe-struck by it. We were basically attracted to the second part of the opus 5 Sonatas because, other than “La Follia” (number 12), they are not as widely known as the first six sonatas, and also there was the fortuitous existence of a period transcription for recorder!
You write in your notes about the variety of ornamental styles upon which you drew for this project, and how each take varied in matters of detail. How did you decide which take to release, and is there any possibility that alternative takes might ever be made available?
This was a matter of extensive discussion between us. To be honest, we just decided upon what we liked at the time of editing. There could be future edits made available, but that would kill the whole point of the project, which is to show that this music changes in every single performance of it.
I note that while the performances of the Corelli sonatas that I am familiar with were performed with cello and harpsichord as the basso continuo, you have taken the entire continuo part yourself. (Brilliantly, I must add.) Why the decision to forego the bowed counterpart?
Well, actually, if you look at Corelli’s 1700 engraving published in Rome, it says “violone o cembalo” (stringed bass OR harpsichord) not “violone e cembalo.” The idea that a bowed counterpart to harpsichord and/or lute continuo is necessary comes from C. P. E. Bach’s keyboard treatise of 1753. He recommends it as the best type of continuo, thus acknowledging the freedom allowed for continuo instrumentation. The continuo could even be two harpsichords, or simply a bowed bass and no chords. There was no set rule for this sort of thing in Corelli’s view. This, like ornamentation, shows that the performer is as much a part of the creation of the piece as the composer was.
I see that there are additional recitals with Michala Petri planned for 2015, consisting of contemporary works. What might the audiences expect to be hearing and might there be a recording of this repertoire?
As it happens, we just finished a recording of this music, and I’m very excited about its release, which is slated for February. We recorded a program of Danish and British contemporary and new music, including such composers as Axel Borup-Jørgensen, a completely new name to me, and Daniel Kidane, a young British composer who is very much on the rise. We’ve also recorded such classics as the sonatina for treble recorder and harpsichord by Gordon Jacob, an unjustly forgotten composer. I had heard his horn concerto a few years ago and absolutely rate him as a great composer.
Finally, you have recently signed as a Deutsche Grammophon artist. What are the plans with that label?
I just recorded my first disc with them, of concertos by Henryk Górecki and J. S. Bach, as well as Steve Reich’s Piano Phase (approved by the composer, of course!) and a few other bits and bobs. There’s an awesome project I’ll be recording in 2015 yet, and some other things, but unfortunately I’m not at liberty to say! I trust that my relationship with DG will allow me to take my message to more people around the world. Ronald E. Grames
This article originally appeared in Issue 38:4 (Mar/Apr 2015) of Fanfare Magazine