Sunday, March 11, 2007

Bull Market

There is no doubt about it: young Mahan Esfahani knocked everyones' socks off. While we have had a number of great recitals in San Diego, some by rather notable players, I don't think I have ever seen such an enthusiastic response from our audience, one that I share. The response is only natural: not only does Esfahani have the digital dexterity, he has imagination, insight and depth. I have no doubt that we will be hearing a great deal about him in the coming years.

Esfahani played a program of Bull, Böhm and Bach: I referred to these as "An Earlier Three Bs." However, he has a special affinity to Bull, from whom he drew upon for the first half of his program. It seems that there has been an increase of interest in music of Bull recently, but he has been programmed primarily in combination with other "virginalists" composers. Esfahani plans to correct that with recordings of his complete works; based on what I heard, I can't wait.

John Bull (c. 1562-1628) was the closest thing to a rock star in his day—and more. Possibly used by Queen Elizabeth as a spy, he lost his post when he knocked up a woman, finally had to leave England altogether under a cloud of scandal. Despite his protests of unfair treatment, the English envoy in the low countries wrote:
...Bull did not leave your Majesties service for any wrong done to him ... but did in that dishonest matter steal out of England through the guilt of a corrupt conscience, to escape the punishment, which notoriously he had deserved, and was designed to have been inflicted on him by the hand of justice, for his incontinence, fornication, adultery, and other grievous crimes.
I can't pass up recounting the Archbishop of Canterbury's words:
...the man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering the organs and virginals.
Actually, he makes rock stars seem rather tame...

Bull's rollicking The King's Hunt is something of a war horse for those with the chops to play such a tricky piece with the flair and abandon it demands. No doubt about it: Esfahani has the chops! But, he also turned to even more demanding and deeper works, in particular Bull's variations on Walshingham; you don't hear this often, and I don't think ever the entire set of 30 variations. As Esfahani writes:
The thirty (!) variations on this tune stand unsurpassed as the culmination of the English Virginalist school in terms of compositional treatment of the tune and the cultivation of a hyper-virtuosic technique that was not see its equal until the works of Domenico Scarlatti in the 18th and Franz Liszt in the 19th century.
Mahan Esfahani has a comfortable, even graceful virtuosity. Often I find myself fretting for the performer, as if I am channeling their anxiety. I was able to simply enjoy the music, to enjoy the moment as he played. It really is good news is that this gifted organist and harpsichordist has plans to record all of Bull's works. After a brilliant concert in a palatial house in Rancho Santa Fe, I can't imagine anyone in the audience who wouldn't have bought the yet-to-be-produced set on the spot, if they had the opportunity. Esfahani was that good.

Esfahani continued on in the second half with Georg Böhm's Praeludium, Fuga, and Postludium in g-minor. This is actually a large-scale and very dramatic work. I have recordings of this work by Leonhardt, Meyerson, and Wooley and none of them capture the majesty I heard. Esfahani has a flair for rhetoric and the dramatic, but he avoids the traps of the cliché and overstating the obvious. The result is music that breathes, builds and ultimately concludes so that the entirety makes sense.

Actually, a great example of his strengths were found in the Bach Capriccio B-Dur sopra la lontananza del suo fratello diletissimo. This youthful work is one of my least favorites: it is over-played and easily sinks into triteness. Esfahani's introduction to the audience provided a new context and new things to listen for and he provided such warmth and clarity that I found myself really liking the piece. In retrospect, it was a good addition to what otherwise could have been a program that was too heavy.

The audience would have kept him playing encores all evening, if they could have. He launched into an enthusiastic and dazzling Scarlatti, one of the early ones: K. 27 in b-minor, complete with the dramatic hand crossings; not even Hantaï takes it that fast and it brought to mind the description of Scarlatti's own playing:
...a grave young man dressed in black and in a black wig, who had stood in one corner of the room, very quiet and attentive while Roseingrave played, being asked to sit down to the harpsichord, when he began to play [Roseingrave] said, he thought ten hundred d[evi]ls had been at the instrument; he never had heard such passages of execution and effect before.