JS Bach Six Keyboard Partitas, BWV825-830 Mahan Esfahani hpd Hyperion F b CDA68311/12 (148’ • DDD)
For his recording of Bach’s Partitas, Mahan Esfahani uses a harpsichord built by the workshop of Jukka Ollikka in Prague, which conveys a brightness and definition that mirrors the performer’s absorbing and occasionally unconventional interpretations.
Although the First Partita’s faster movements benefit from Esfahani’s fluent animation, his imagination particularly flourishes in the Sarabande, where the harpsichordist’s elasticity of phrase and ear‑catching embellishments up the music’s expressive ante while illuminating its dance origins. Esfahani imparts a distinct character upon each of the three sections of the Second Partita’s Sinfonia. He arpeggiates the Grave adagio’s opening chord in slow motion, and continues to probe the music at free‑floating leisure (imagine if Ennio Morricone had recomposed these seven bars!), easing his way into the Andante’s two-part counterpoint, in contrast to the final section’s headlong intensity. His subtle agogic stresses in the Courante create a slightly tipsy aura that will keep you alert, not to mention the Rondeaux’s emphatic off-beat accents and the hefty kick of the Capriccio finale’s left-hand octave coupling.
Esfahani sets an intimate, conversational tone in the Third Partita’s Allemande, where his sophisticated legato finger technique generates uncommon harmonic tension. Those who prefer a steadier tread in the Scherzo may find the harpsichordist’s distensions and accelerations overly unsettled, but one truly can dance to the Gigue’s unpressured lilt. Esfahani’s decisions regarding tempos and articulation throughout each of the Fourth Partita’s movements add up to one of this big work’s most satisfying recorded interpretations, highlighted by a hypnotic, deliberately unfolding Allemande. The Fifth Partita’s striking features include unusual yet convincing fermatas over the rests in the Praeambulum’s opening bars and the Tempo di minuetta’s alluringly blended registration.
It’s refreshing to hear the fugue of the Sixth Partita’s Toccata so beautifully rounded and embellished, as well as how Esfahani relishes the Sarabande’s dissonances. As for the question of playing the Gigue’s main theme in duple or triple metre, Esfahani serves it up both ways. Clearly his pursuit of scholarship never lapses into pedantry either as performer or annotator. Listeners new to the Partitas may find Trevor Pinnock’s remakes (Hänssler, 8/00) a safer, less idiosyncratic first choice, yet there’s no questioning Esfahani’s inquiring musical mind and absolute mastery of his instrument. Jed Distler
Duruflé Complete Organ Works Thomas Trotter org King’s College F KGS0053 (73’ • DDD) Played on the organ of King’s College, Cambridge
With the 2016 rebuild of the King’s College chapel organ,
celebrated on a magnificent recent DVD release from Fugue State Films (5/21), the college’s own label has called on the services of one of its long line of eminent former organ scholars to put it through its paces in the music of Maurice Duruflé. While there is no direct connection between Duruflé and King’s College, Cambridge, and while the rebuilt organ does not speak with the kind of distinctly French accents we might look for in any new contender in the already very crowded field of recordings of Duruflé’s organ music, King’s have a couple of aces up their sleeve. The first is the remarkable versatility of the rebuilt organ – it seems to suit just about every conceivable school of organ music – and the second, almost trumping that ace, is the figure of Thomas Trotter.
The organ exudes that sense of calm expansiveness which characterises Duruflé’s writing, matching enchanting delicacy of sound with latent power and bringing everything into clear focus without ever drawing attention to itself; which is not something we can always say when it comes to native French organs. With remarkable clarity of articulation (beautifully exhibited in a deliciously bubbling account of the Scherzo), outstanding virtuosity (breathtakingly displayed in the Toccata) and an instinctive feel for registration (superbly exhibited in the multi-layered Sicilienne), Trotter turns out performances that are top of the pile when it comes to compelling performances of this repertory.
But there is something else. Trotter has been playing this music for decades, knows it inside out and is so thoroughly attuned to its distinct idiom that his playing has a kind of natural empathy which so strongly inhabits the music that you almost forget that the performance is the work of a single individual player. I love the way he makes the music shine brightly through that incense-laden atmosphere which seems to shroud so many recordings of this repertory, without actually disturbing it in any way. I would point to that moment (around 4’36”) in the ‘Alain’ Fugue where the sun suddenly cuts through the dense textures to bring the piece to its truly dazzling conclusion, a moment of almost ecstatic revelation: I do not recall ever having been so excited by this music before.
Add to this an exceptionally fine recording from Gary Cole, which has captured instrument, acoustic and playing with impeccable detail without any sacrificing of atmosphere, and we have here a genuinely exceptional organ release. Marc Rochester
Paganini 24 Caprices, Op 1 Alina Ibragimova vn Hyperion F (two discs for the price of one) CDA68366 (104’ • DDD)
In an interesting appendage to the main booklet note (an excellent essay on the Caprices by Jeremy Nicholas that has
28 GRAMOPHONE 28 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2022