Mahan Esfahani at Carnegie

Mahan Esfahani rehearsing in Weill Recital Hall

Mahan Esfahani, who performed the Goldberg Variations in New York City in the fall (see my earlier post), returned on May 1 for a solo recital in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall. The program was a diverse one of Frescobaldi, Rameau, Benda, and Bach. The instrument was once again a French double after Hemsch and Blanchet built in 2010 by the Montreal maker Yves Beaupré—an instrument that usually resides in our living room.

For all its renovations over the years, Weill Recital Hall, which many still remember as Carnegie Recital Hall, retains the charm of its 1891 Beaux-Arts interior. The smallest of Carnegie’s three main stages, it has fewer than 300 seats, and I’ve always found it an attractive and  pleasing venue for solo harpsichord. Certainly the Beaupré instrument sounded rich and warm in Mahan’s hands.

The things that always stand out for me in his playing are virtuosity, varied color, and passionate commitment, all of which were very much in evidence throughout the program. The opening set of Frescobaldi pieces included the famous Toccata settima, played with freedom and brilliance, and the Cento partite sopra passacaglia. Now I must confess that, in some performances, these hundred-or-so variations can seem too much of a good thing. (One thinks of the famous quip in Jane Austen: “You have delighted us long enough.”) But not on this occasion: the brisk tempo and bold use of rubato made these variations exhilarating.

Those qualities also marked the next set, a gathering of favorite movements by Rameau, ranging from the sighs of “Les Soupirs” to the hammer blows of “Les Cyclopes.” (An engaging speaker, Mahan informed us that, according to Rameau, the colorful titles were assigned after the pieces were written, but I can hardly avoid making the connections between the movements and their evocative titles.) The first half ended with Sonata No. 5 by Georg Anton Benda, which has many of the quirky Sturm und Drang attractions that characterize the music of his better-known contemporary C. P. E. Bach.

And it was Carl Philipp Emanuel’s still better-known father who dominated the second half of the program, with the French Overture—one of those rare works, like the Goldberg Variations, that Bach actually went to the trouble to publish. Also like the Goldbergs, the French Overture requires a double-manual instrument and encourages the kind of tonal variety that Mahan excels at. As he noted, the grand overture movement and the following dances call to mind a succession of dancers, much as we find in French baroque opera, entertaining the audience with a gavotte or a courante or a gigue—though, Bach being Bach, all the movements have a depth that raises them well above standard dance fare. (Mahan offers a stimulating discussion of this and the other works in his insightful, elegant program notes.) Several movements had an overlay of extra notes, somewhat in double fashion, supplied by the performer.

The two encores were the poignant “Bist du bei mir” (originally by Stölzel and probably arranged by Bach, who’s usually attributed as the author) and Rameau’s “Les Trois Mains,” which allowed the dexterous keyboardist to engage in some sleight of (third) hand.

(The accompanying image above shows Mahan Esfahani practicing in Weill Recital Hall before his performance.)