Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s alternately rousing, bland birthday tribute to C.P.E. Bach

April 6

Mahan Esfahani came home Friday night, in a sense, to play a recital at the Library of Congress. The American harpsichordist, who grew up in Potomac, Md., offered a tribute to C.P.E. Bach, the son of J.S. Bach who was born 300 years ago last month. The program included only two sonatas by the birthday boy, paired with music by other members of his famous family and some unexpected choices, including a piece by Domenico Cimarosa as an encore.

Whenever the music offered fast-moving scales and figuration, as in J.S. Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue,” Esfahani ran with it, his agile fingers making remarkably clean and accurate contact with every key. By the last piece, C.P.E. Bach’s A minor “Württemberg” sonata (Wq. 49/1), though, both his hands and my ears had tired of dazzling runs. Esfahani drew forth a broad range of sounds from the five-octave instrument, built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf in 1991 for local musician J. Reilly Lewis, combining or switching between manuals to create unusual registrations.

Smaller and slower parts of the recital, however, were often more strange than anything else. Four of W.F. Bach’s polonaises were straightforward and bland, and Johann Kuhnau’s “Suonata seconda,” describing the melancholy Saul comforted by David’s harp, had some willful distortions of tempo that made the piece a little leaden. Martinu’s neoclassical “Deux impromptus” for harpsichord were a welcome discovery, but playing four of Prokofiev’s “Visions fugitives” for piano, Op. 22, on the harpsichord was an odd choice. One missed the sharp attack possible on the piano, as well as its greater range of dynamics and shading. Besides, Prokofiev did write at least one piece for a pair of harpsichords, part of a recently rediscovered score of incidental music for Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin.”

Downey is a freelance writer.


Mahan Esfahani. (Marco Borggreve)

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