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Time Present and Time Past Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Variations on ‘La Follia’ [6:27] Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
Harpsichord Concerto, Op.40 (1980) [8:33] Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
12 Variations on ‘Les Folies d’Espagne’ Wq 118 No.9 [7:19] Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762)
Concerto Grosso in D minor after Arcangelo Corelli’s Op.5 No.12 [11:50] Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Piano Phase for Two Pianos (1967) arr. for harpsichord by Mahan Esfahani [16:40] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052 [22:07]
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
rec. September 2014, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal ARCHIV PRODUKTION 479 4481 [73:45]
Esfahani is so fine an artist that I feel almost churlish writing a review that expresses disengagement from this recording project. The album title derives from Eliot’s Four Quartets but when applied to the continuum of time embraced in this disc - and in particular the two contemporary pieces by Górecki and Reich - the whole thing becomes insupportably pretentious. It would have been intellectually more honest to call this disc ‘Scarlatti to Reich’ rather than reprint lines from Burnt Norton and Little Gidding. I doubt Eliot’s ‘for history is a pattern of timeless moments’ could, in any sense, be applied to the music selected here and the nature of the project is underlined by the booklet cover which features an upside-down Esfahani.
He’s much better right-side-up and playing with the colour and clarity to be heard in Scarlatti’s La Follia variations. You’d better like La Follia because it recurs throughout the disc, most remarkably perhaps, in C.P.E. Bach’s typically capricious Variations where we find tempo fluctuations and expressive density alike. Bach’s familiar compositional idiosyncrasies encourage a comparable sense of animation and adventure from the harpsichordist. He plays, incidentally, on two instruments in the recital – a Burkhard Zander model, made in 2012, after a Johannes Dulcken, and – for the Scarlatti - a 2010 Detmar Hungerberg, modelled after Florentine instruments of the seventeenth-century.
It’s fortunate that Górecki’s harpsichord concerto intersperses these baroque pieces because, by the time we get to Geminiani’s Concerto grosso, after Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op.5 No.12 La Follia, the immortal melody is becoming very insistent, no matter how manifold are the ways in which it’s varied. It doesn’t help that Concerto Köln’s reading is somewhat peremptory, even a bit militant in places, with the solo violin line a touch too terse. That’s a concern in Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto, too, because for all the soloist’s eloquence and elegance – he plays Brahms’s cadenza - for some reason the band is not playing ball and sounds austere, even stern.
Górecki’s Harpsichord Concerto, composed in 1980, expresses, Esfahani tells us in his notes, the ‘futility of life in a repressive country’. If so, a stern critic might note that it’s rather a case of expressing life’s futility through the medium of futile music. The soloist’s striving patterns are resolutely ignored by indifferent, glum deep strings, before in the second movement absent-minded, minimalist and largely upper strings take over. The result is hardly gripping but if you want a first-class recording of it, then this is it. Esfahani has also given us a version for multi-tracked harpsichord of Reich’s Piano Phase. If anything, this is even more annoying on the harpsichord than on the piano.
This disc doesn’t hang together. There’s nothing wrong with the recording quality, though the booklet notes lean towards the contemporary works and the JSB. There’s nothing at all missing in Esfahani’s playing which is as cultured as ever but, for me, he’s pitched his DG debut all wrong.