Mahan Esfahani

Byrd, Bach, Ligeti

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Iranian-born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani is emerging as a major star on his instrument, and this recital, recorded live at London's Wigmore Hall in May 2013, offers an ideal place to start with his work. The program is unusual. Esfahani starts with the keyboard works of William Byrd, with no fewer than 14 of them. That would normally be a risky move: Byrd's keyboard writing is dense and somewhat tough, less outwardly virtuosic than similar works by John Bull and other composers of the English Renaissance. But Esfahani's performances are revelatory, and the album is worth the price for these alone. Byrd's contrapuntal material and dance themes are shaped with profound care, and each little piece builds to a startling level of intensity, reaching a peak with the Fantasia from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (track 13). The three pieces from Bach's Musical Offering, BWV 1079, here appear as the later stage of a tradition: that's what they were, but they're rarely included in a program as such, and Esfahani's handling of the relationship is masterful. Bach seems to be the end of the tradition, but of course the tradition is not over at all, as you hear in three fascinating neo-Baroque pieces by György Ligeti, works written in defiance of East Bloc dissuasion about harpsichord playing. Throughout, there is a real sense of command, a virtuoso presence that music like Byrd's needs but seldom receives. A superb recital.

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