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'Harpsichord is not just an echo of the past': Mahan Esfahani heads to Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 09:51 08 June 2018 | UPDATED: 09:51 08 June 2018

Mahan Esfahani will perform at Raynham Hall in Norfolk. Photo: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche Grammophon

Mahan Esfahani will perform at Raynham Hall in Norfolk. Photo: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche Grammophon

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Internationally acclaimed musician Mahan Esfahani is on a mission to revive the harpsichord as a modern instrument. As he prepares to return to Raynham Hall to play The Goldberg Variations, he tells Simon Parkin more.

Mahan Esfahani will perform at Raynham Hall in Norfolk. Photo: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche GrammophonMahan Esfahani will perform at Raynham Hall in Norfolk. Photo: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche Grammophon

“People shouldn’t come expecting to hear some sort of historical document,” says internationally renowned harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani of his growing reputation for reviving a feature best known in Renaissance and Baroque music as a modern instrument.

“I think it is more of a case of when people go to hear a harpsichord they should expect to hear something as subjective and artistic as when they hear the piano, or the violin or the cello. For too long with instruments like this people have had the attitude of ‘oh, I’m going to hear something authentic’ or the way they did it back then. I’m not making that claim.”

Since making his London debut in 2009, Mahan has been at the forefront of re-establish the harpsichord in the mainstream of concert instruments. This mission came to significant public attention when he played the first harpsichord recital in the history of the BBC Proms in 2011.

A former BBC New Generation Artist, he has also been shortlisted both for the Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist of the Year and Gramophone Artist of the Year – both firsts for the harpsichord.

The Iranian-American will be back in Norfolk next week to give the latest in the series of music recitals organised by Lord and Lady Townsend at Raynham Hall.

Mahan Esfahani will play The Goldberg Variations at Raynham Hall. Photo: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche GrammophonMahan Esfahani will play The Goldberg Variations at Raynham Hall. Photo: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche Grammophon

Having previously visited in 2016, his return will see him performing one of the most famous works for harpsichord, Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Goldberg Variations.

His recording of the work for Deutsche Grammophon won much acclaim for critics and won the 2017 BBC Music Magazine Award for Best Instrumental Recording. So it seemed like an obvious choice to perform in the great hall of a late Jacobean house. And despite his modern approach, the historic surroundings were a factor in his return to Norfolk.

“I felt that I’d had such a good time there with them before why not take a work that I enjoy playing,” he said. “I knew that Alison Townsend was a big fan of the work so it made perfect sense.

“It’s also pretty rare that you play classical music in spaces that are built around the time that the music was composed.”

Raynham Hall boasts its own harpsichord, made the eminent Norwich builder Alan Gotto, based on a 1716 harpsichord by Pierre Donzelague, and boasting a Chinese dragon design on the soundboard along with the stylised depiction of sea waves.

“I am very much looking forward to playing it again,” said Mahan. “Its funny people often ask will I be bringing my own harpsichord when they’d probably never ask that of a pianist. But at Raynham they do have a special harpsichord and obviously a lot of consideration and care went into creating that instrument.”

Isn’t it a nightmare never knowing how an instrument is going to sound or feel when played? “It is part of the fun and tragedy of the job,” he laughs.

Born in Tehran, Mahan received his first guidance on the piano from his father before exploring an interest in the harpsichord as a teenager.

“I studied piano, though not all harpsichordists start that way,” he recalls. “They are different instruments. It’s funny every time you mention the harpsichord it’s like the piano is like the elephant in the room. Why? It’s a different instrument. I heard the harpsichord when I was a kid and thought I’d like to spend my time learning and playing it.”

With him having recently recorded The Goldberg Variations, I’m curious how the playing of the work varies in a live recital from the process of recording. He is quick to point he relishing the immediacy and freedom.

Mahan Esfahani will perform at Raynham Hall in Norfolk. Photo: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche GrammophonMahan Esfahani will perform at Raynham Hall in Norfolk. Photo: Bernhard Musil/Deutsche Grammophon

“A recording is a document so you are going to try to get to some extent the ideal sense of what is on your mind about a particular work, though of course it’s only a snapshot in time,” he explains.

“When performers first started recording they were not used to it so they played like they did for audiences. At the beginning recording was quite free, and then in the middle of the 20th century people began to see recordings are a separate document.”

For the harpsichord to be seen as a modern instrument there needs to be something fresh to play, but are modern compositions being written?

“Oh sure all the time and I commission quite a bit of it,” said Mahan. But he has little time for those who attempt to set new works with an eye to the past.

“There is a sort of new repertoire harpsichord out there that tries to reference the past and I totally don’t get that. Anyone who commissions music with an eye to the past is an idiot.

Mahan Esfahani recording of The Goldberg Variations. Photo: Deutsche GrammophonMahan Esfahani recording of The Goldberg Variations. Photo: Deutsche Grammophon

“The people who do that I think are wrong. John Cage said people are afraid of new ideas, but frankly I’m afraid of old ideas. If you want kitsch, watch an old film.”

• Mahan Esfahani will perform The Goldberg Variations at Raynham Hall on June 16, 6.30pm, £50, £30 under-30s, 01328 862133, ticketsource.co.uk/raynham-recitals

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