The harpsichord may be the quintessential European instrument, each touch of the keys evoking powered wigs and sedan chairs. It never really went global as did the piano or violin. One might not therefore expect someone like Tehran-born Mahan Esfahani to be one of the instrument’s premier modern exponents.
Esfahani, says his bio laconically, “was born in Tehran in 1984 and raised in the United States. He lived in Milan and then London for several years, before taking up residence in Prague.” There just might be a bit more of a story there.
He and violinist Jennifer Pike made their Hong Kong debuts at a concert on Tuesday evening called “Baroque Meets Contemporary”. The two periods may have met, but the Baroque did most of the talking: some two-thirds of the concert was Bach.
The harpsichord did however talk to the violin. Esfahani and Pike have an evident bond; while the one solo for each instrument were enjoyable enough, these lacked intimate back of forth of the four duets. Esfahani’s deft expertise was immediately apparent and an excellent foil to Pike’s emotive playing.
In any event, anyone who thought the harpsichord was an instrument largely consigned to history would have had a pleasant surprise in Walter Piston’s 1945 perky Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord. (The harpsichord used in the recital had been, we were told, the personal instrument of the harpsichordist for whom this piece was composed; after his death, the instrument ended up in Hong Kong.) The other non-Baroque work was a piece, “Cascades”, composed by the violinist’s father especially for this China tour.
Esfahani’s expressed desire to, in his words, have us consider the harpsichord as any other instrument rather than an “old instrument” was rather undone, however, by the choice of the last piece, Bach’s stately Violin Sonata in F Minor. Regardless of some Broadway-inflected 20th-century outings, the harpsichord still has at least three of its feet firmly in the 18th—which is not, in the end, such a bad place to be.
Esfahani and Pike were in Hong Kong courtesy of Premiere Performances, an independent outfit dedicated to solo recitals and chamber music. Hong Kong now has a wealth of choices when it comes to symphonic music; chamber music is still relatively under-represented. The charming recital was a reminder of the benefits in remedying this.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.