Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani bristles at the idea that his instrument could possibly be archaic, or that its usefulness is limited to music from the Renaissance or before. In the liner notes to his paradigm-shifting new album Musique, he credits “One perhaps unlikely source of inspiration…the people who, over the years, booed, cat-called and/or walked out of halls worldwide in anger and confusion (in other words, fear) during the live performances of these and many other modern and contemporary works. Be assured, my friends, that much more of this is on its way.”
If fearlessness is your thing, this album – streaming at Bandcamp – is for you. Esfahani plays a custom-made 2018 model by Jukka Ollikka, with an additional soundboard which essentially turbocharges the sustain – and Esfahani uses all of it. The album’s first piece is Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming, Esfahani’s steady, precise, eerily twinkling close harmonies contrasting with spare, pensive phrases. The washes of overtones reverberating from inside are nothing short of otherworldly: this piece alone proves Esfahani’s point about the harpsichord’s enduring vitality.
Henry Cowell wrote his Set of Four in 1960, twenty-six years before Takemitsu’s piece. The first, a rondo, is a disquietingly flamenco-inflected number with big, splashy glissandos and crashing, reverberating chords intermingled within shifting, stairstepping phrases. The ostinato of a second movement is a darkly bristling twelve-tone baroque invention that gives Esfahani a chance to take some jubilant leaps out of its otherwise rigid, brisk counterpoint. The third movement, a chorale, comes across as both homage to and devious parody of Bach. The conclusion blends quasi-Chopin with more conventional twelve-tone exchanges and a fleetingly deliciously chugging low lefthand attack
Kajia Saariaho‘s Jardin Secret II, written in the same year as Takemitsu’s work, is a rapidfire, minimalist electroacoustic piece with electronics by the composer herself: the contrast between organic and robotic is striking. A swordfight ensues: it’s not clear who wins.
Gavin Bryars‘ 1995 partita, After Handel’s “Vespers” is a rhythmically shifting exploration of baroque gestures, alternating methodically between harmonic worlds old and new, minimalism and medieval loquaciousness.
Esfahani has his hands full with the pointilllistic needles and epic, organ-like crush of Anahita Abbasi‘s 2018 Intertwined Distances, but his attack is unrelenting, the cumulo-nimbus ambience amplified by light electronic enhancements. A distant carillon effect is a clever touch.
He closes the record with Luc Ferrari’s 1972 Programme Commun – Musique Socialiste?, which could be a sardonic commentary on Pompidou-era French politics, or a prescient attempt to replicate the staccato sound of a Fender Rhodes elecric piano via one of its most venerable predecessors. This is the album’s most overtly amusing and pulsingly accessible piece, Esfahani reveling in how it seemingly inevitably falls apart, held together only by a pulsing electornic drone.
It’s a good bet that even the most diehard devotees of new music have never heard timbres or textures anything like this, especially not over the length of a whole record. Let’s hope Esfahani lives up to his vindictive promise in the album booklet, many times over.