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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Six Partitas
Partita No 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825 [19:10]
Partita No 2 in C minor, BWV 826 [22:17]
Partita No 3 in A minor, BWV 827 [20:54]
Partita No 4 in D major, BWV 828 [31:57]
Partita No 5 in G major, BWV 829 [21:51]
Partita No 6 in E minor, BWV 830 [32:33]
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
rec. 2020, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth
HYPERION CDA68311/2 [74:01 + 74:42]

I’ve always admired Mahan Esfahani as one of the finest keyboard players of his generation. This latest recording in his Bach solo keyboard cycle, the Six Partitas published as Clavier-Übung I, once again reasserts “his interpretive flair, expressive freedom and meticulous scholarship”. The previous release featuring the Toccatas garnered world-wide critical acclaim and was enthusiastically reviewed in these pages, as were other Esfahani recordings (review ~ review).

The Partitas are suites of 18th-century dance forms, each having a distinctive rhythm. A formal introduction heads each suite. Although Esfahani’s is a scholarly approach, the notes mention the sources and scholars he’s consulted along the way, I find his readings both heartfelt and fervid and giving the impression of music being created on the wing. One example is the opening Grave adagio of the Sinfonia of the Partita No 2 in C minor, played slower than most, but sounding wonderfully improvised and free. He then goes on to inject energy and sparkle into the two-part fugue which ends the movement, delivering it with such clarity and precision.

The Praeludium in the Partita No 1 in B-flat is nicely paced, refined and elegant, with the Corrente airborne and buoyant. The Sarabande proceeds with great nobility of gesture, with the florid melody expressive and the trills beautifully contoured. He plays the Giga briskly without sacrificing precision and clarity in the hand-crossing. The Partita No 4 is both noble and intimate. The French Ouverture is a majestic curtain raiser on proceedings with its double-dotting, trills and flourishes. The long lines of the Allemande which follow are expressive and intimate, contrasting startlingly with the brusque articulation of the Courante. Esfahani makes some potent colour registration variants in the repeats.

He takes a penetrating and considered approach to the opening Toccata of the Sixth Partita, with a slower tempo than other performances I’ve heard. Yet the momentum is upheld. The final Gigue presented Esfahani with a dilemma, so he made the decision to play it in both duple and triple meters on different repeats.

These are compelling and imaginative readings, both bold and convincing, captured in superb sound. Microphone placement is ideal. Esfahani has written his own scholarly liner notes in which he discusses the texts he’s used and his personal choices. He uses the same modern instrument he employed in his recording of the Toccatas. Constructed in the Prague workshop of the Finnish maker Jukka Ollikka, it dates from 2018. For the more technically minded, the notes tell us that it’s “based on the theories and surviving examples of Michael Mieke with the hypothetical addition of an extra soundboard for the 16’ register and a cheek inspired by Pleyel 1912; the disposition is as follows: 16’8’8”4’ with buff on the upper manual/soundboard from carbon fibre composite, EE to f3/length 2.8 metres”. Simon Neal has done the tuning and technical work “based on various 18th-century German temperaments, a’ = 415Hz”.

Bratislava is praised by Esfahani for its audiences who “have the keenest and most focused ears of any classical-music listeners I have ever encountered” and in tribute, each of his Bach cycle recordings features artwork depicting a Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) head. The sculptor spent his final years in Bratislava.

Stephen Greenbank

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