REVIEW: Mahan Esfahani Shows Orpheus the Harpsichord Underworld
May 9, 2019
By Brian Taylor
Mahan Esfahani is a harpsichordist on a mission. He is rescuing the antique keyboard from the doldrums of Baroque music and the shackles of the period instrument movement. Esfahani’s harpsichord is as vital and viable as it ever was, and he commissions new work for the instrument, in addition to reviving a body of literature written for it over the past century. The award-winning musician, born in Iran, raised in the US, and currently based in Prague, made his New York concerto debut with the illustrious Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the 92nd St. Y on Wednesday evening.
Esfahani said in a New York Times interview, “I happen to like the instrument … I don’t see what the whole early-music obsession is.” Asked to compile five harpsichord works we should know, along with pieces by Elliot Carter, Xenakis, and Ligeti, he highlighted Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto from 1926. A rare performance of that work for harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello, along with the 1935 Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra by Czech composer Bohuslav Jan Martinů, made this a veritable revival of two pieces that were themselves revivals.
Both concertos spring from the Neo-classical vein of twentieth-century trends. De Falla composed his for Wanda Landowska, the inimitable pioneer who brought the harpsichord back from extinction in the early twentieth century. The first movement is a jangly and celebratory Allegro, like a herky-jerky amusement park ride or a stroll through a crowded street fair. Esfahani plays the Bach-like motoric sixteenth-notes with the accuracy and drive of pistons.
The second movement, Lento (giubiloso ed energico), is declamatory — displaying the harpsichord’s grandiose side. Esfahani stylishly stretches arpeggios up and down the keyboard, each string pricked at just the right microsecond. De Falla’s scoring for the accompanying orchestra is full of clever combinations and rhythmically tricky bits to play tightly. Orpheus knows just how to groove along in intricate textures. They also illuminate coloristic effects, such as haunting shadows in the expressive Lento created in low, woodwind-heavy, punctuating chords. The last movement, a rousing Vivace (flessibile, scherzando), has an austere edge. But the team has fully meshed by this point in the piece, and the concerto crosses the finish line with exuberance.
Martinů’s Concerto takes a different tack. Although both pieces are palpably tonal, Martinů’s music more directly echoes Baroque harmonies and idioms. More reminiscent of the winking nonsense of Darius Milhaud — music’s answer to Salvador Dalí, perhaps — than the ironic smirk of Stravinsky, the Poco allegro first movement of Martinů’s Concerto sounds like a train veering off its tracks. Jaunty, old-fashioned tunes are tossed between the winds, strings, and harpsichord, but gradually the harmonies hit bumps in the road and accumulate detritus, and new visions are revealed. It’s like a off-road-vehicle trek through a Baroque concerto-grosso. Curiously, the orchestra includes the harpsichord’s nemesis, the modern piano, creating a tug-of-war — a wrestling match between the eighteenth century and the twentieth — as the piano tries to intrude on the harpsichord’s prominence, and the two engage in a tête-a-tête.
The second movement begins with a solo lament in the harpsichord, played with exquisite lyricism by Esfahani, and blossoms into a modern answer to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As in the first movement, Martinů takes us to some surprising places. Esfahani explained prior to beginning the piece, the Adagio contains a passage so unexpectedly powerful that it offended Stalinist authorities in Prague. For an encore, Esfahani made the harpsichord sing and dance with verve in Israeli composer Haim Alexander’s “Improvisation on a Persian Song.”
The Grammy-winning Orpheus bookended the program with two pieces composed for other forces, but arranged for nonet. Mozart regarded his Quintet in E♭ major for Piano and Winds, K. 452, scored for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, as one of his best compositions. More recently, French composer Jean Françaix (1912-1997) reworked the piano part for strings.
Orpheus is, exactly as they refer to themselves, comprised of true chamber players — conductor-less, they interact with each other, following the lead of whichever player makes sense in any given musical moment. The effect is different than when a Maestro dictates his view from the podium; there is more space for individuality, more air in the music, more conversation.
On paper, Mozart’s piano-centric score looks like it might not translate comfortably for the strings. But Orpheus’s strings display dazzling technique. The winds boast pure, rounded intonation. There is detail in dynamics and balance, even in busy contrapuntal passages. In the second movement, Larghetto, their collaborative phrasing is beautiful in the way synchronized swimming can be. They support each other as if they are performing an athletic dance. Their easy rapport is also apparent in a lively account of the finale rondo, with much vigorous interchange between solo violin and oboe. In the coda, the woodwinds played warmly, buttressed by especially agile horn playing.
Orpheus topped off the evening with an audacious choice: Richard Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a work originally for large orchestra from 1895. Australian composer Brett Dean’s arrangement for nine players is a tour-de-force of orchestration craft. He ingeniously recreates the breadth and impact of Strauss’s jocular, theatrical work with drastically fewer musicians, demanding more of those remaining. It’s a concerto for every instrument.
This is Orpheus at its most thrilling, a miracle of ensemble playing, exquisitely tuned chords, and energized points of arrival. This version brought forth especially dexterous playing from the solo clarinet and bassoon . The chamber orchestra’s teamwork decision making injects spontaneity into pacing, such as in the pregnant moments of suspense leading up to the flashy surprise whip of the cape and landing of the curtain.