Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. (credit: Kaja Smith)

Esfahani CD features three harpsichord concertos from modern Czech composers

Martinů, Krása & Kalabis: Harpsichord Concertos
Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord; Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Liebreich, conductor.
Bohuslav MARTINŮ: Concerto for harpsichord and small orchestra, H246
Hans KRÁSA: Kammermusik for harpsichord and seven instruments
Viktor KALABIS: Concerto for harpsichord and string orchestra, Op. 42
Hyperion CDA68397
Release Date: February 3rd 2023
Format: CD
Duration: 60:34

Giorgio Koukl | 14 DEC 2022

When Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) started re-introducing the harpsichord in the Parisian music circles after an approximate break of nearly 150 years, she probably didn’t know that she was equally creating a new aesthetics of sound. She had chosen to rebuild the harpsichord without following the ancient models, entirely made of wood, lightweight, and with a gracious sound. She asked her builder, Pleyel et Cie., to use a piano-like soundboard to assure a heavy, metallic sound, which would be loud enough to fill a modern concert hall.


(click to enlarge)

This way of seeing things lasted only about a half-century and is today entirely abandoned in favor of a total return to the historical replicas of Flemish and Italian-style harpsichords.

Nevertheless, this exotic instrument attracted modern composers, and many have written music for it, including Manuel de Falla and Francis Poulenc, to cite only two.

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) wrote his three-movement Concerto for harpsichord and small orchestra, H246 (“Poco allegro,” “Adagio,” “Allegretto”) in 1935, dedicating it to Marcelle de Lacour, who premiered this small neoclassical jewel the year after in Paris. It certainly is not the best Martinu ever, but with its witty choices of rhythm shifts, polytonal harmonic movement, and a curious juxtaposition of harpsichord against a piano are entertaining and well worth hearing.

Mahan Esfahani possesses the necessary technical precision, being well-accompanied in this recording by conductor Alexander Liebreich and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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Of a certainly different style and weight is the music of Hans Krasa (1899-1944). This far-too-neglected composer, sometimes too quickly put away under the general etiquette of “Jewish music of composers killed in a Nazi camp,” has certainly deserved more attention. Krasa has written only a handful of musical pieces, the “Brundibar” opera being the best known and played nowadays. The Kammermusik for harpsichord and seven instruments has two movements, called “Bewegt” and “Sehr ruhig (gehend).” It is definitely the highlight of the whole CD.

The inventiveness of the composer is breathtaking. His capacity and ease of producing nice ideas, his rare capacity to evolve those ideas in a fully-mastered development, and his complete control of every single instrument and their interactions, create a genuine masterwork.

At this point, the listener will probably miss the beauty of a “real” harpsichord that does not come from the Landowska heavy-style school used for this recording. Try to listen to the Robert Hill version, played on a “historical” instrument, to get the difference.

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The final composition on this Hyperion CD is also chronologically the last. Composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006) wrote his Concerto for harpsichord and string orchestra, Op. 42 for his wife, Zuzana Ružičkova, who in turn was the teacher of Mr. Esfahani.

With its three movements, “Allegro leggiero (sic),” “Andante,” and “Allegro vivo,” it is the longest work on this album, lasting nearly 30 minutes.

This music asks the maximum on Mr. Esfahani’s technical capacity, with its endless cascades of notes, challenging jumps, and apparently non-logical interplay of both hands.

All this is played with great ease by the harpsichordist and by the orchestra, too. But even so, the beauty Mr. Krasa can obtain with far simpler means is here somehow absent.

Being logically destined to a very narrow niche of listeners, this is a fascinating musical document of one historical segment of harpsichord music, certainly not very familiar to the public and thus worthwhile to explore.


About the author:
Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently recorded a first volume of the complete solo and duo piano works of the Italian-American composer Vittorio Rieti, released in March 2023 on the Grand Piano label. (photo: Chiara Solari)