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  42:3 (01-02 /2019)
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Reviewer: Jim Svejda


If there are more exciting harpsichordists anywhere in the world these days than Mahan Esfahani, then they’ve yet to make their presence known (and they certainly haven’t made any commercial recordings). Following his stunning recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations for Deutsche Grammophon (B0025379-02), he now returns to Hyperion for what may be his most revelatory and satisfying recording yet.

In his charming and illuminating notes for the album, Esfahani explains that his interest in the music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean virginalists began so early that pieces by Mundy and Byrd appeared on his first recital as a harpsichordist when he was a 19-year-old sophomore at Stanford: “I probably did not play these pieces—or anything—particularly well (some might say not much has changed) but I do remember choosing to play them because I was fascinated by the intense power of a music I didn’t quite understand. It was around this time that my late mentor George Houle posed a serious question whilst we took one of our periodic walks in the Stanford hills: Would a culture that produced Shakespeare have produced merely second- or third-rate music?”

While the individual glories of the album are too numerous to enumerate in any detail, the two works by William Byrd—including the Nynth pavian and galliarde, whose subtitle gives the album its name—are worthy of special mention, beginning with the fantasy on the rising and falling hexachord, Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, which the harpsichordist considers the composer’s masterpiece (and from the way he plays it, it’s hard to disagree). And if there were any lingering doubts that Byrd was one of the first great keyboard composers, the Passinge mesures allays them in what Esfahani rightly calls “a web of magic so incandescent that there is energy emitting from every passing dissonance, every new motif, every unleashed torrent of semiquavers, before returning to the quiet repose of the ancient, noble dance.”

Much of what makes the collection so enjoyable is the physical sound of Esfahani’s instrument, a double manual built in Oxford in 1990, based on a harpsichord made by Carl Conrad Fleischer in Hamburg in 1710. In addition to its clarity and crispness, there’s an embracing warmth and richness that makes it ideally appropriate for the two items by John Bull—“If Byrd is the Bach of the virginalists, then Bull is their Schumann”—particularly in the Chromatic pavan and galliard, which ranks with the most harmonically wacked-out music of Bull’s contemporary Carlo Gesualdo. The colors which the instrument produces also do very handsomely by Thomas Tomkins—“their Debussy”—most obviously in the startlingly intricate and inventive variations on Barafostus Dream which serves as the album’s arresting curtain-raiser.

Scattered among the masterpieces are delightful miniatures like Farnaby’s Nobodyes Gigge and Why aske you, the anonymous The Scottish gigg, and John Dowland’s version of the familiar Can she excuse my wrongs?, which are all dispatched with the same verve and meticulous attention to detail. Moreover, the sequence of pieces is so carefully chosen that the album coheres beautifully as an album, which can be listened to from beginning to end without the slightest hint of listener fatigue.

Even those whose opinions about the instrument were shaped by Wanda Landowska’s great clanking monstrosity—or Beecham’s notorious quips—need to place themselves in the hands of the harpsichord’s most persuasive living advocate to have their minds put right forthwith.

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